On Holidays.

No, this isn’t about going away for a break, although I could definitely use one.

Rather, it’s about public holidays, and the supposed unfairness of Christmas and Easter being public holidays while Jewish, Islamic or pagan holidays are not, and major events scheduled during Ramadan can disadvantage observant Muslims – an athlete who is fasting, for example, won’t be anywhere near the top of their game. It started out as a Tumblr reply (of course) but developed into a full post, which ought to stand on its own.

Recognising only Christian holidays in a pluralistic society is, on the face of it, unfair. But many of the proposed alternatives are no better. The idea of having to never schedule big categories of events for a whole month, which moves every calendar year and whose commencement technically is uncertain until it happens, is ridiculous. And, at the end of the day, while we might argue about whether we really have control over what we believe internally, religious observance is a choice. If you choose it as an alternative to some other recreational activity, or even your job, that’s your right, but demanding that others accomodate your choice is not.

As far as I can tell, there are a few fair options:

  • Choosing one or two holidays per major religion to officially observe. “Major religion” would be defined as one followed by a certain percentage of the population, which could easily be as low as one or two per cent, especially if the branches of a given religion agreed on their holiday as Catholics and Protestants do. For non-observers, the days in question could be either ordinary public holidays, ordinary working days, or something else. I could easily see this inviting sectarianism and unpleasantness, however.
  • Removing any and all holidays with religious or cultural baggage. The only pertinent difference between a religious holiday and a cultural one, after all, is metaphysical, which hardly seems a relevant ground for distinction. Of course, this would mean removing Labour Days, war memorial days, national holidays, and just about anything with any more significance than “this stretch of the calendar is too empty of breaks, so we’ll just put something in to even it out and call it September Bank Holiday.” This is, of course, ridiculous, and defeats the primary purpose of observing holidays in the first place.
  • Recognising that Christmas and Easter are not just religious holidays, and haven’t been for a long time. This is the option we’ve effectively chosen, and I think correctly. I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination; I despise organised religion in all its forms, reject any notion of supernatural phenomena whatsoever, and consider personal spirituality harmless but silly. But I love Christmas, because it’s time spent with my family, and time for gift-giving and summer holidays. Although the way it’s practiced usually leaves a lot to be desired, the concept of ritual self-denial to be found in Ramadan and Lent, so long as it’s actually voluntarily entered into, can be worthwhile. Rituals can help keep us grounded, connected to our culture (whether that of our birth or adoption), and sane. For that matter, both Christmas and Easter evolved from multiple pre-Christian holidays, and many of their traditions are either pagan or entirely secular in the first place.
  • Related to this is the fact that a pluralistic society has to be more than the sum of its parts; there have to be things that everybody accepts, even if they’re such basic principles as equality, the rule of law, democracy, or driving on the left. But a successful pluralistic society has more than these bald tenets in common; it develops a culture of its own that is compatible with its subcultures, and indeed grows from their interactions.
  • There is another potential option, albeit a variation on the first, and that would be to allow every person a given number of paid personal days off for holiday observance (as many as four or five per year would not be unduly generous), on top of annual leave, to be nominated by the person. Unlike annual or sick leave, these days would be entirely unconditional, expected to be used for religious or cultural reasons rather than merely as extra leave, nominated in advance, and it would be the employer’s responsibility to accomodate them (by, say, rescheduling events). This would still mean that people may have to choose between one aspect of their lifestyle and another, but we all do that anyway, and we don’t have anything approaching an unlimited right to accommodations.

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