Blogs > Liberty and Power > 'Public' Holidays: The State & the People

Jan 25, 2005 9:35 am

'Public' Holidays: The State & the People

26th January happens to be both ‘Australia Day’ (in Oz, where else?) & ‘Republic Day’ in India. On the 26th January 1788 the First Fleet (of convict ships) disembarked in Sydney Cove. And on the 26th January 1950 the Indian government declared a ‘republic’, with a (ceremonial) President as ‘head of state’. (Between 15 August 1947 & that date, the government had been a ‘dominion’, with HM the Queen as ‘head’.) 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.

‘Australia 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. (‘Free’ settlers arrived very shortly after the convicts; most of the latter stayed on as ‘emancipists’.) 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.

Following from this, I thought I might check on ‘public’ holidays generally. How many are purely political -- State-connected? How many simply acknowledge a pre-existing social/religious occasion? The results are a little surprising.

In my (Oz) diary there are lists of public holidays in 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 (the exceptions are Israel, Iran, Pakistan, & Saudi Arabia.) Next is *Christmas Day , Julian or Orthodox (except for China, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, &, of course, Israel & the Muslim countries.) 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 ‘public’ holidays are *political - State-connected - in origin, connexion, or commemoration. (Shades of the Jacobins!) There are some 3 of these in China, 6 or 7 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 ‘holidays’: 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. -- And so on.

In Russia: ‘public’ holidays mark such political occasions as Army Day, victory over Germany in World War II, the October Revolution (yes - it’s still commemorated), Women’s Day (ha), Russian independence from the old Soviet Union, etc. -- China has Women’s Day (double ha), Labour Day & National Day.

Finally: Amongst ‘Christian’ countries: neither Russia nor the US have an official Easter holiday. Even Indonesia lists Good Friday; Hong Kong has Easter Monday too.

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 ( more surprise.)

And there are *no ‘political’ holidays in Britain[i.e., ***England, Wales, Scotland.] Remembrance Day [11th November]is a holiday only in Canada. With one exception, British ‘public’ holidays are ‘traditional’ -- *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 added (inter alia) one new holiday: the first Monday in August (now the last, except in Scotland.) *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. 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 the Prophet’s birthday as a holiday. (The Turkish ruling classes want to limit political expressions of Islam.)

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More Comments:

Sudha Shenoy - 1/25/2005

Japan has New Year's day, the Spring Equinox, & the Autumn Equinox as official holidays. All the rest are State-related.

Stephen W Carson - 1/25/2005

My wife suggested the term "polidays" (political days) for the State connected holidays:

Jonathan Dresner - 1/25/2005

Japan's public holidays are, off the top of my head, ALL state related, with the exception of the New Years break. There's several emperors' birthdays, which have been converted to other purposes as the emperors passed (Green Day, for environment; Physical Fitness day, etc.). There's the celebration of the founding of Japan, an Imperial-era holiday which continues, and Constitution day. There's "Adult Day" [seijin no hi] which is the day on which those who have attained the age of majority in the past year are feted (and harangued, under guise of moral guidance). That's all I can think of, off the top of my head.