u2018Public' Holidays: The State vs. the People

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by Sudha R. Shenoy by Sudha R. Shenoy

On the 24th October 1793, the French Revolutionary Assembly u2018adopted' the Revolutionary Calendar & thus imposed it on the French populace. Since everything was being made anew, through democratic command, this had to include the most humdrum, everyday items. The Revolutionary Calendar did away with all references to religion – each day was renamed; & it was assigned a plant, tool or animal, to replace the saint associated with it. The week now had ten days. All twelve months were renamed; they now consisted of three Revolutionary weeks each. The Revolutionary year began at the autumn equinox. The Calendar was backdated to begin on the 22 September 1792, & years were numbered from that day. (Thus 1792/93 was Year I of the Revolution.) – Napoleon finally abolished the Revolutionary calendar at midnight of the 31st December 1805, i.e., the 1st January 1806.

Pol Pot, the Great Murderer, notoriously named his first year of butchery, Year Zero (it began on the 17April 1975). Again, he arrogantly assumed he was wiping the slate clean & starting the world anew. (Pol Pot became a left-Communist during his years in Paris, where else?) In the event, he & his thugs ruled for some three years & ten months only – they were forced out by the Vietnamese Communists (!) (on the 8th January 1979). The Bolsheviks themselves, however, didn't go so far as to invent their own calendar. They simply replaced the Julian with the Gregorian (on the 14 February 1918), & thus – on this point at least – simply brought Soviet Russia's official calendar into line with most of the world.

As distinct from such wholesale imposition of entire calendars, government officials do decree specific u2018public' holidays for their subjects. I thought I might see how far the Jacobin spirit operated here. I began with the 26th January.

This date happens to be both u2018Australia Day' (in Oz, where else?) & u2018Republic Day' in India. On the 26th January 1788 the First Fleet (of convict ships) cast anchor in Sydney Cove. And on the 26th January 1950 the Indian government declared a u2018republic', with a (ceremonial) President as u2018head of state'. (Between 15 August 1947 & that date, the government had been a u2018dominion', with HM the Queen as u2018head'.) In both countries, there are official celebrations: parades, obligatory speeches (yawn) from politicians, & (in Oz) the Governor-General & State Governors; (in India) the President & State Governors.

u2018Australia Day' commemorates two beginnings, one social & the other, political. First, the extension to the Australian continent, of specific social & economic activities, that changed considerably over time. (u2018Free' settlers arrived very shortly after the convicts; most of the latter stayed on as u2018emancipists'.) Secondly, the Oz State (all right, New South Wales) can be said to have started then. Thus both people & State have reason to mark the day.

The Indian event, however, is – from the ordinary person's viewpoint – purely a cosmetic change in the Indian State's nomenclature. Greatly significant for officials & politicians – the ruling classes – but not for their subjects.

From here, I thought I'd take a wider look, at u2018public' holidays generally. How many are purely political – State-connected? How many simply acknowledge a pre-existing social/religious occasion? The results are more than a little surprising.

I first looked at the following (because they are listed in my Oz diary): the UK, Australia, Canada, 4 Continental countries, 9 countries in East & Southeast Asia (surprise), the US & Ireland. I added Israel, Russia, India, Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia & Turkey (26 in all).

New Year's Day is the most widely listed, by some 22 of these governments (the exceptions are Israel, Iran, Pakistan, & Saudi Arabia). Next is Christmas Day, Gregorian or Orthodox (except for China, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, &, of course, Israel & the Muslim countries: except – Indonesia, the largest!) The rulers of China have conceded New Year's Day & the Chinese Lunar New Year. All these are, of course, pre-existing, customary holidays.

In China, Russia & the US: all – all – other u2018public' holidays are political – State-connected: invented for some State-decreed occasion, or commemorating some State activity. (Shades of the Jacobins!) There are some 3 of these in China, 6 in Russia, & some 8 in the US. – Even American Thanksgiving started as a Presidential proclamation (Lincoln, 1863). Before that, celebrations varied according to church & individual preference. Washington (the President) did proclaim a day of thanksgiving in 1789, but Jefferson opposed the idea. – Some of the other US u2018holidays': warfare is a State activity, par excellence (Memorial Day, Veterans' Day). Independence Day marks a shift from one set of (overseas) rulers to other sets (local). Presidents' Day also commemorates rulers. Labor Day marks compulsory trade unionism. Columbus Day was commemorated voluntarily on a few scattered occasions in the late 18th & then the late 19th centuries. It was marked annually from 1920 onwards, then proclaimed annually by FDR from 1937 onwards & made an official holiday in 1968.

In Russia: u2018public' holidays mark such political occasions as: victory over Germany in World War II, Army Day, Women's Day (ha), Russian independence from the old Soviet Union, etc. – Until the 24th December last year, the October Revolution of 1917 was commemorated on the 7th November, & Yeltsin's constitution, on the 12th December. But both holidays were abolished. Instead, 4th November is now decreed a holiday – People's Unity Day', to mark the surrender, in 1612, of the Polish troops holding the Kremlin. – (???!!!) – Russia's current rulers badly wanted to drop the 7th November (October Revolution Day). But politically speaking, they had to replace it. – Why the 4th November? Because of certain political events in the early 17th century: After Boris Godunov died in 1605, a period of political chaos followed; Mikhail Romanov eventually became Tsar in February 1613. But in the interim: three pretenders, a prominent nobleman, a council of nobles, a Polish prince, & a triumvirate – all claimed or sat on, the throne of Muscovy. Additionally, the Swedish & Polish-Lithuanian rulers sent in their troops to u2018protect their interests' (& to forestall each other). Polish soldiers occupied the Kremlin from 1610 to 1612. After a long siege, they surrendered (on the 4th November 1612) to a popular militia. – This date being politically convenient, it was selected for the new holiday, decreed by the present rulers of Russia

China has Women's Day (double ha), Labour Day & National Day.

Finally: Amongst u2018Christian' countries: neither Russia nor the US have an official Easter holiday. Even Indonesia – the world's largest Muslim country – lists Good Friday; Hong Kong has retained Easter Monday too. India & Singapore also include Good Friday – both have significant Christian minorities.

Except in the US: Throughout the Anglophone u2018Christian' world, Good Friday & Christmas Day are the only two days in the year on which everything – everything – stops. Even the milk isn't delivered; no newspapers are published. Both days have been observed for at least a millennium. – A personal note: I had occasion to teach in the US during the second semester of a particular academic year. – To make up for earlier bad weather, the university administration announced that classes would be held on – Good Friday!! I couldn't believe my ears. And I just couldn't do it. I gave my students the day off. – It was explained to me as u2018the separation of Church & State.' But it smacks to me more of Jacobinism.

At the other extreme: The Israelis & Saudi Arabia have only one political day each (when their States were proclaimed). In Israel, all other 10 holidays are major Jewish religious occasions (surprise); in Saudi Arabia, the remaining 4 occasions are all major Muslim celebrations (amazing).

And there are no u2018political' holidays in Britain [i.e., England, Wales, Scotland] – none. Remembrance Day [11th November] is a holiday only in Canada. With one exception, British u2018public' holidays are u2018traditional' – very long-standing: Christmas, New Year's, Easter, Whitsun (now stabilised as the last Monday in May, except in Scotland, where it's the first Monday). May Day was already celebrated, long before the trade unions appropriated it for Labour Day. Legislation in 1871 created one new holiday: the first Monday in August (now the last, except in Scotland). It also made Boxing Day [26th December] & Easter Monday into statutory holidays. – Northern Ireland has, in addition, St. Patrick's Day &, infamously, Orangemen's Day (the 12th of July). This last is both traditional & clearly political; it was added to the official list by the Governor in 1924.

All the remaining countries lie somewhere between these two extremes. In Japan, New Year's is extremely important. Other u2018customary' holidays are the Vernal Equinox, the Autumn Equinox, the old Harvest Festival (23rd November) (renamed by officials, u2018Labour Thanksgiving Day', forsooth), & Boys' Day (5th May) – which officials grandly designated u2018Children's Day'. – Not that anyone bothered – Girls' Day, complete with Dolls' Festival, is still firmly celebrated on the 3rd March. It is not officially recognised, of course.

Other official holidays are: the birthdays of the current & two previous Emperors; the first day of the (1964) Tokyo Olympics; the day the first Japanese Emperor ascended the throne in 660 BC; Constitution Day; & three holidays created out of whole cloth by the Diet [parliament]. In 1948, 15th January was decreed u2018Coming-of-Age Day'. Local government officials hold functions for those who have turned 20 in the previous year. (At 20, one can vote in Japan. It is also the minimum statutory age for smoking & drinking). In 1966, the third Monday in September was decreed to be u2018Respect for the Aged Day'. It marked legislation passed u2018for the welfare (!) of the aged' in 1963. As there were no u2018public' holidays in June, July & August, the third Monday in July was declared u2018Marine Day' in 1995 (after various marine organisations had lobbied since 1991). It was linked to the Meiji Emperor's return from a sea-trip to Hokkaido (Japan's northernmost island).

Amongst the Muslim countries, two religious holidays are universal: Id-ul-Azha, commemorating Abraham's sacrifice, & Id-ul-Fitr, celebrating the end of Ramadan. And except for Turkey, all have Islamic New Year & the Prophet's birthday as holidays. The Turkish ruling classes want to limit political expressions of Islam. Even Algeria, with its long-running civil war between the military & the Islamic parties, has more Muslim holidays.

Lastly, governments in all the Buddhist countries of course have officially recognised Vaisakh Purnima (full moon in May) – the day the Buddha was born, attained Enlightenment, & died. Officials in Malaysia & Indonesia also recognise this holiday – both countries have important Buddhist minorities. Other official holidays include Chinese & Hindu New Year's (the latter in Thailand). Chinese New Year is also official in Indonesia & Malaysia – both have important Chinese minorities.

In conclusion: Two discoveries surprised me. First, the blatant Jacobinism expressed in American u2018public' holidays. Second, that all British holidays were u2018customary'. Even the one invented holiday – August Bank Holiday – is statutory but apolitical: simply decreed as a holiday, with no political links.

Sudha Shenoy [send her mail] is Honorary Associate in Economic History at the University of Newcastle in Australia. See her Mises.org interview.

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