Sunday, 10 March 2013

Should Good Friday and Easter Monday remain public holidays?

As we consider almost every public holiday on the Australian calendar, we can find people in the community who experience the day as a holiday from work but who still, in all honesty, can say “This isn’t really my holiday.” 

The most dramatic illustration of this statement is Australia Day. 
  • Most Australians view this day as the beginning of our nation’s life. 
  • In recent decades, many non-Anglo-Celtic Australians have regarded this day as an opportunity to celebrate our cultural diversity. 
  • However, for most indigenous Australians, the 26th of January represents the beginning of the catastrophic loss of their continent and the destruction of much of their culture.
There really is no easy way around this fact.

There are other, if less dramatic, illustrations of this statement, as well.
·        Republicans receive a public holiday for the Queen’s Birthday.
·        Pacifists receive a public holiday for ANZAC Day.
·        Political conservatives receive a holiday for Labour Day, along with anyone sympathizing with employers on most industrial relations issues.
·        The various public holidays observed on a state or regional basis for horse races, agricultural shows, and similar events are also public holidays for those who choose to spend the day doing something else.
·        New Year’s Day is received as a public holiday by those who see another day (Chinese New Year, Rosh Hashanah, the First Sunday of Advent, etc.) as a far more meaningful start to their year.

For almost every public holiday in Australia, some Australians can claim “this isn’t really my holiday.”  In this light, the handful of Australian public holidays that are linked either to Christian liturgical observances (Good Friday, Christmas Day) or their aftermath (Boxing Day, Easter Monday) are in very good company.

The issue is further complicated by examining the appeals to Australia’s secular society and Australia’s multifaith culture. 

While Australian society is, in many ways, profoundly secular, so are many nations in Western Europe that have public holidays for Good Friday and Easter Monday.  In contrast, neither Good Friday nor Easter Monday is a public holiday in the flamboyantly religious United States.

Similarly, I believe a growing appreciation of the multifaith dimension of our Australian culture is crucial for our nation’s future.  But in this context, speaking as a person involved in interfaith relations, I am unaware of any proposal by Australians of faiths other than Christianity to delete holidays with a Christian origin from the calendar.  (Such proposals are normally made by people of an aggressively anti-religious orientation, but with a Christian background.)

In considering the question of whether or not Good Friday and Easter Monday remain public holidays, the sole issue I want to address is the level of congruence between the churches’ observances of Holy Week and Easter and the observances of the wider community.  If no real congruence exists, I believe that the churches should seek to voluntarily relinquish these public holidays by requesting governments to move the public holidays on these days to some other occasions.

To look first at the other Christian observance marked by public holidays in this nation, I believe that a high level of congruence exists between the Christian celebration of Christmas and the Christmas celebration of the broader community.  Themes that are never far from the surface in our community’s celebrations at Christmas include hospitality, joyful generosity, and the idea of Christmas as an occasion for human ethical transformation (what I call the “Scrooge motif”).  All these themes are directly relevant to themes found in the proclamation of the Christian faith at Christmas. 

However, I believe that such a congruence of themes is markedly absent between the Christian observances of Holy Week and Easter and the activities of the broader community during the Easter long weekend.   There is really far less common ground between the churches and the broader community at Easter than at Christmas.

The Easter long weekend affects a number of practical issues of church life for Holy Week and Easter. 
·        The existence of the Easter long weekend means that, for many congregations, Easter Day is a very low-key occasion.  The non-frequent worshippers who make a point of attending services on Easter Day often do not make up for the numbers of regular worshippers who are elsewhere.  Because of the Easter long weekend, there are many regular worshippers who rarely attend worship in their own congregations on Easter Day.
·        As well, the structure of the Easter long weekend often means that many non-frequent worshippers are more apt to turn up at their local church for the solemn and sombre observances on Good Friday (before travelling to the place where they’ll be weekending) than for the more joyful celebrations of Easter Day (while they’re away).   This may have the effect of providing a skewed view of the Christian faith among those for whom this is their sole visit to church in an average year, as well as reinforcing in their minds the popular cultural stereotype of practicing Christians as being very gloomy people.
·        The practice of some congregations (usually within the “evangelical” range of the Christian spectrum) who hold a premature “Easter” celebration on Good Friday is, in my opinion, no help here.  Such a practice lacks liturgical and theological integrity by glossing over the pain of Good Friday.

In many ways, I envy my Eastern Orthodox colleagues who can, in most years, lead their congregations in the celebrations of Easter without the distraction and the competition of the longest long weekend of the year.

My own preference is that the Good Friday and Easter Monday public holidays be replaced by an autumn long weekend, with the date of the weekend to be set in consultation with state and territory Departments of Education in terms of their preference for the break between the first and second terms of the school year.  Such an autumn long week end may coincide with Easter (on the date celebrated by western Christians) in some years, but not others.  Similarly, it may also coincide with Orthodox Easter, or with Passover, in some years, but not others.

I personally believe that the Christian churches of Australia have nothing to lose – and potentially much to gain – if Good Friday (along with Easter Monday) was no longer a public holiday. 

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Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.