the right to celebrate

Although the change of pace on the holidays we grew up with feels like a natural right, the legal basis is less clear than we might like. Here in the UK, bank holidays are established by the Banking and Financial Dealings Act of 1871 as days when “no person shall be compellable to make any payment or to do any act … which he would not be compellable to make or do on Christmas Day or Good Friday.” But there is no underlying act defining the nature of Christmas Day or Good Friday; those holidays are established only by common law.

The 1871 act covers only banks, and application to other businesses derived from the idea that the economy flowed through in-person activities at banks. Non-bank workers do not have any statutory rights to public holidays apart from what is in their individual or collective contracts. Although it is customary to be able to take the eight bank holidays off with pay, employers may count them against the required 28 days of annual leave rather than adding them on.

In the US, government holidays were established in 1870, starting with New Year’s Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Initially the holidays were only for the population of the District of Columbia and now they are also for federal government employees nationwide, including the Post Office. Again the legal sense of holiday included the provision nobody should be forced to honor a payment order on that day – rather like the rabbinical discouragement of handling money on a Sabbath. Also noteworthy is the call-out to early modern holiday practices in “a day of public fast or thanksgiving.”

A provision establishing that government workers must be paid for holidays was added in 1885 (23 Stat. 516) Currently there are ten holidays listed for federal government employees in 5 US Code 6103, which also gives those workers January 20, Inauguration Day, every four years. Stock exchanges, which are integrated with the banking system although not located in Washington, are closed on these days by their own custom, except for Columbus Day and Veterans Day. The exchanges also eschew four-day weekends when they fall, on the principle that they do not shut two weekdays in a row for fear that pent-up trading orders will make the market too volatile. They do however take Good Friday (for reasons that have attracted urban legend but are probably demographic.

Martin Luther King Day is the most recent addition to the federal calendar, in 1983, 15 years after Dr. King’s death. Other proposals for federal or all-state holidays besides Juneteenth have included Cesar Chavez Day, Election Day, and the addition of Susan B. Anthony to the honorees on Presidents Day (a compromise day for Washington and Lincoln’s Birthday, which both fall in February).

States set their own legal holidays. For example, Massachusetts takes all ten federal days plus Patriots Day in April, which marks the first battles of the Revolutionary War. (Update July 24: Juneteenth has been added, sneaked in through a provision in a COVID spending bill.) On these days the Commonwealth closes state, county and local government offices, as well as schools if they are in session. Federal offices are not required to close on local holidays but they normally do. “Business,” “commercial,” and liquor store trade are subject to separate regulations: for example, retailers may open on the summer holidays of Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day. Even “business” restrictions do not put a hard stop on all businesses: for example, most movie theatres don’t close and neither do Chinese restaurants, except on lunar New Year. Disjunctions between national and minority cultures over calendaring is another topic, and here the American Jewish Christmas of a movie and Chinese food is a well-known cliché.

If we go to Alabama – an arbitrarily chosen Southern state – the local additions to the calendar look quite different. The extra days off in Alabama are Confederate Memorial Day, Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s birthday, and Mardi Gras (in some counties, with the rest of the state getting what HR departments call a “personal day”). Presidents Day, which commemorates the birthdays of Washington and Jefferson, is labeled as Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday as well. Most Northerners probably have no idea this kind of veneration of the Confederacy is going on; I didn’t until I started researching holidays. On the more progressive side, in Alabama Columbus Day is double labeled American Indian Heritage Day, and December 1 is named Rosa Parks Day, with localities permitted to observe it and citizens exhorted to find time in their regular days to think of Mrs. Parks and the civil rights movement.

The third country I have worked in, Finland, offers more definite protection for workers. The law on Independence Day, for example (388/1937) says that work in government, agencies, local government, courts, schools, businesses, and work sites shall be suspended as if it is Sunday, and workers shall have the same rights to refuse work as if it is Sunday. Again the civil right to the holiday is explicit, but what it means to have a holiday is again based vaguely on religious tradition, allowing some room for interpretation. 

At a supranational level, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights (1948) supports time off with its wording:

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay

Although this is probably interpreted as referring more to annual leave, the word “periodic” could be a basis for the right to more frequent pauses for well-being. 

Next: What we do when we celebrate 

3/N Next: How we celebrate

Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
This entry was posted in holidays. Bookmark the permalink.