when we celebrate

In discussing the place of Juneteenth in the US holiday calendar, it is worth looking at the whole yearly round. Europeans often express amazement at the short annual leave that is given to workers in the United States: the minimum is just two weeks compared to four weeks in the UK and six weeks in Finland. I agree this is terrible. No question the American government and employers need to do more on the R&R front. But US workers have that Europeans might envy: a seasonally balanced annual holiday schedule. 

The table above shows that a minimum of eight months have at least one holiday, most often a long weekend. Some holidays aredefined to fall on a Monday and others float. If a floating holiday falls on a weekend, workers get the adjacent weekday, and if it falls on Tuesday or Thursday many employers will give the bridge day to make a long weekend. Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday and the holiday break is commonly from midday Wednesday through Sunday, although travel and cooking make it less of a rest than some other holidays.

With a balanced schedule, you know there’s always a three-day recovery period and a short week not too far away. It boosts the spirits. It helps joint planning for long weekends and three-day events. We have a bit of time to enjoy the outdoors in all four seasons, if our state has seasons. 

Obviously not all workers can take holidays on the designated day. Infrastructure needs to keep going, patients need to be cared for, and as long as shopping is promoted as a leisure activity, retail workers have to work the sales. Freelancers will have deadlines. Some bosses are workaholics and set their calendars so important work must be finished on the quiet weekend. But regular workers who have to miss the holiday will be compensated with another day off and possibly overtime. Contingent workers do get nothing, which is yet another reason to abolish zero hours contracts, strengthen employment law, and support collective bargaining work by national unions.

By contrast, in the parts of Europe I’ve lived in, fall and winter are a very long slog. The paid holidays clump in spring and early summer, because of the Christian basis of the holiday calendar, and to take advantage of the weather.

The only points these two European calendars have in common with the US are (Gregorian) New Year and Christmas, which remain part of the American calendar despite the formal separation of church and state. Incidentally, in Finland, substitute days are not usually given for holidays falling on the weekend – you just lose it – but many workplaces will declare long shutdown periods around Christmas and Easter. 

Returning to Juneteenth, from a practical point of view this day seems ideally placed for the US calendar, falling as it does in a month that as yet has no federal holiday. It also comes just after the end of the school year, furnishing an excellent theme for a last lesson or assembly.

Juneteenth would obviously be a step in decolonizing the US calendar, which is big on political holidays that mark stages of European takeover: Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July – and also Veterans Day, which commemorates the European war that was the beginning of the end for the imperial powersö and Memorial Day, which was originally for Civil War dead, and was widely celebrated as a Confederate holiday in the South. All of these days also need attention.

Above is an excerpt from a letter sent by the President of MIT on addressing systemic racism. There are undoubtedly similar statements in other such letters. We should expect not just instituting Juneteenth but adjusting other holiday observances to be part of institutional antiracism work. This extends to Europe, where traditions like Zwaarte Piet and three kings in blackface have distorted representations and caused hurt.

Holidays are a site where the social order is reproduced, and as such attention to their ideological workings is long overdue. But living as we do in conditions of extreme and fast-changing capitalism, we should not lose sight of their other function as rest for workers.

Next: The right to celebrate

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Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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