In a secular society, public holidays are a fascinating problem. Holidays are in most cases motivated by religious custom but, at least in Northern and Western Europe, religion has little place in public life. So in practice the number and distribution holidays these days rely on tradition with economic arguments also playing a role as we saw when Sweden swapped Pentecost Monday for National Day. The thing is that while Monday is always – well – a Monday, National Day is always 6 June and rotates between the days of the week, including Saturday and Sunday. The introduction of National Day as a national holiday was a cunning way of reducing the number of effective public holidays. Needless to say, if the CEOs of the world had their way, all public holidays would be abolished along with Saturdays, Sundays and vacations and replaced with artificial days designed to boost the sales of various kinds of expensive gifts.
Things can be bad enough in a post-religious society, but if you have a multi-religious society, they tend to become really complicated: Judaism, Christianity and Islam all divide the week in six working-days and one day of rest and religious worship. (In)Conveniently, the three religions disagree over which day should be the day of worship – Muslims opt for Friday, Jews for Saturday and Christians for Sunday. And then we have the various special holidays which differ between religions (this also includes Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox Christianity). Add Buddhists and Hindus to the picture and things become extremely complicated.
It is into this mess that the new party secretary of the Swedish Social Democrats Carin Jämtin managed to kick a potential honets’ nest by proposing that the Muslim Eid el-Fitr should be made a public holiday in Sweden. In all likelihood, the proposal was well-meant but badly thought out and with a little bit of luck, the Sweden Democrats could win a substantial number of votes on the issue.
At some point Jämtin has noted that holidays which taken at face value only include some part of the population also excludes others. Christmas, for instance, has no meaning for Jews or Muslims, but there are still public holidays in late December. Similarly, the Jewish and Muslim holidays are either ignored or seen as exotic by the majority of the population. So, swapping a Christian holiday for a Muslim one should have the desired effect of boosting Muslim inclusion in Swedish society. And, needless to say, this is where I predict the Sweden Democrats will kick in. In – ahem – extreme nationalist circles the former Social Democratic leader Mona Sahlin was slandered as “Mona the Muslim” for covering her hair once when she visited a mosque. (Covering her hair – not wearing a burqa, a niqab or even a hijab.). Paul Wolfowitz at least had a pair of worn-out socks to earn him a sea of public ridicule.
That anything related to Muslim customs has a high potential for conflict in today’s Europe is a known fact. A Danish MP who organised a private Eid celebration in the restaurant of the Danish parliament became the centre of controversy with the Danish People’s Party campaigning against Muslim advances in one of the sacred places of Danish democracy. The (Liberal) speaker of the Parliament reluctantly noted that there was no way to block the party (the dinner, not the Danish People’s Party, in case you wondered). This was another low point in Danish public discourse.
But Islamophobia aside, Jämtin also has to face two questions: 1. If the Social Democrats generally want to promote a secular society, why promote new religious holidays? and 2. Why stop at Muslims? After all, there are different Christian churches which celebrate different holidays (consider the Orthodox Christmas or the various Catholic holidays, for example). And what about the Jews and Yom Kippur? Or various Hindu or Buddhist holidays? Or an Atheism Day? Some people might feel excluded.
With a bit of luck, we could have 365 holidays every year and add a Leap Day Holiday every 4th year for good measure.