Eliminating statutory holidays just because their origins may be Christian is a horrible idea

Roslyn KuninI first visited China in 1986 when it was still a very poor country. Evidence of that poverty was everywhere. Instead of cars and trucks, bicycles provided transportation, hauling whole families and goods, occasionally even refrigerators.

There were no supermarkets. Farmers brought their produce into the city and piled it on the sidewalks to sell. At night, they slept on the sidewalk beside it. People bought cabbages, which were plentiful in the fall, and stored them under their beds in their tiny apartments for the winter.

Very few had freezers or even refrigerators, and electric power was in such short supply that it was turned off during the daytime in residential neighbourhoods since everyone should be at work or school. That meant there were no elevators in the 10-storey apartment buildings. Nor was there running water. That was available from a tap on the sidewalk.

All this was very different from how we live in Canada, but the biggest difference that struck me was not the material standard of living but the fact that there were no days off. Chinese cities were very busy, noisy and crowded seven days a week. There was no Sunday slowdown, let alone a weekend.

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It was a poor country so everyone had to work at least six days a week, but not the same six days. School children and government employees got Sunday off, but you might have Monday off and your partner on Tuesday. Your parents could have Thursday and Friday as their free days.

You get the picture. At no time during the week could the family, let alone a larger group, get together. Only twice a year, at the Harvest Festival and the Lunar New Year, did all work stop.

China is now a middle-income country. Cars and trucks replace bicycles. Many homes are now as well equipped as in Canada, although smaller. The lights stay on and people shop in stores. And they now have weekends.

Having free time together is a major factor in keeping a family, a community, and a society functioning and is one of the first rewards of a rising standard of living. In Canada, we have our weekends. Sunday is not quite as quiet as it used to be when most stores were closed, but you can still readily tell the weekend from a weekday.

We also have about a dozen statutory holidays during the year for which just about everyone gets off or at least gets extra compensation. Many of those holidays are based on the Christian religion. People of other religions do not automatically get days off for their festivals.

This has led some to say that our statutory holidays discriminate against non-Christians and should be eliminated. That is such a bad idea.

Imagine a year without a December holiday season to prepare us for Canada’s challenging winters or a summer without a few long weekends to spend with kids and friends at the beach or the barbecue. Holidays provide the punctuation in our day-to-day lives and give us pleasure.

While some statutory holidays are based on Christianity, they have now become more secular and traditional rather than religious. One Asian immigrant family that came to Canada had not known about Christmas but quickly picked up Canadian holiday practices, including decorating trees, turkeys, and presents. They were here 10 years before realizing Christmas was a Christian-based holiday.

Everyone in Canada, including Christians, should be free to practice whatever religion or traditions they choose. Workers should be entitled to a sufficient number of days off to mark their holidays, whether or not they are statutory. Employers usually understand why they are taking those days.

But, just as we respect all the diverse festivals, we must also continue to allow the vast majority of Canadians who have grown up with time off for winter holidays and Santa Claus to continue to do so.

People enjoy their own holidays and those of others and are usually delighted to be invited to join their celebrations. No one I know, regardless of their background, has ever been offended by being wished a merry Christmas. Today, we all need all the cheer and merriment we can get.

Wishing you a very happy 2024, even if you follow a different calendar. May we all have lots of holidays to celebrate together this year.

Dr. Roslyn Kunin is a Troy Media columnist, public speaker and consulting economist.

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