Thursday, December 20, 2018

Holidays - What's in a name?

Michael – Thursday

The idea of a holiday has changed quite a bit since the fourteenth century when it meant a religious festival and a “day of exemption from labour and recreation”. Quite a bit of recreation goes on these days!

The end of year holidays are almost upon us, but South Africa has a head start with a holiday on December 16. I'll come back to that later. After the election of the first democratic government in South Africa, a commission was set up to look at the issue of public holidays. Here are a couple of thoughts on why that was important.

Some of our holidays are traditional Christian holidays, celebrated in the British tradition. For example, Good Friday. That day remains as a public holiday, and it’s still determined by arcane calculations based on the moon’s orbit. (Jeff will explain it to you if you want to know the details.) But then we also have Easter Monday – the Monday after Easter. It does have some religious significance, but nothing of the order of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It’s celebrated in some Christian countries, but not by others. And sometimes it's appropriated to celebrate something secular – in the Republic of Ireland it celebrates the Easter uprising that began on Easter Monday. In South Africa there was a feeling that an extra religious holiday for Easter wasn't needed, so in 1995 it was renamed Family Day – a day for people to be with their families. Maybe they had in mind something more like North American Thanksgiving. In practice, Easter has remained a long weekend in school holidays that people with the money use to take trips.

Then we have Christmas and Boxing Day. Boxing Day is the day after Christmas, and it’s mainly restricted to the countries that once fell under Britain. Apparently, the idea is that this was the day on which delivery people, garbage collectors, and the like, came for their “Christmas box” – a small cash present. (Presumably they needed the holiday so that they didn’t have to do their day jobs.)

We also have Women’s Day and Youth Day. I sense a few hackles rising. The point is rather different from gender and ageist ones. Many of the heroes of the struggle against the apartheid government were women – one immediately thinks of Winnie Mandela, but there were many, many others. The holiday commemorates them as well as the general role of women in diverse South African cultures and traditions. It's celebrated on August 9, breaking the drought of public holidays between the middle of June and the end of September.

Hector Pieterson's body carried from the demonstartion
Youth Day is more specific, commemorating the Soweto school protests when the government decided – inexplicably – that the language of instruction for blacks would be Afrikaans. A school boy, Hector Pieterson, was shot by police on June 16 1976. It became a rallying point for the struggle, and more and more workers boycotted their jobs on the anniversary of that day. Some more sympathetic businesses and institutions would close too, or at least allow an unpaid day with no penalty. Now it’s commemorates the role young people played.

Police attack at Sharpeville
In a similar vein, March 21 which was the anniversary of the Sharpville massacre became Human Rights Day. May 1 was recognised as Labour Day, and 24 September became Heritage Day, rather than Shaka Day (it had been celebrated before as such by the Zulu people).

So that brings me to the history of the holiday we have just celebrated – December 16. It’s had quite a history, and again the commission didn’t want to offend or hurt an important group by abandoning it. But it had to change because it was exclusive rather than inclusive.

Battle of Blood River drawing
Voortrekker monument
It started life in 1864 when the General Synod of the Afrikaners' Natal Churches chose 16 December as "an ecclesiastical day of thanksgiving by all its congregations". It commemorated the victory of less than five hundred Boers over an overwhelming number of Dingane’s Zulu warriors on that day fifty six years earlier at the Battle of Blood River. But it also had a deep religious significance. Before the battle, Sarel Cilliers, the leader of the group, made a vow that if God would protect them and give them the victory, then the day would be kept holy every year in the future. Indeed, it seemed to them that such a victory was impossible without His intervention. (No doubt the fact that the Zulus didn't have guns helped a bit too.) Thirty years later, December 16 was declared a public holiday by the Government of the Free State, and they (rather oddly) named it Dingane’s Day. The Nationalist government made it a national holiday in South Africa and focussed on its religious significance, renaming it the Day of the Vow (possibly horrified by a day named after a black even if celebrating his defeat!), and later the Day of the Covenant. Annual pilgrimages were made to the monolithic Voortrekker Monument outside Pretoria to renew the covenant. Later it became a rallying day for black activists, and the day started to have a special, but very different, significance for them also.

Faced with this dichotomy between political versus religious and cultural focus, the commission retained the holiday on December 16, but made it the Day of Reconciliation. It’s often referred to casually as “Braai Day” – the day people get together at home with their friends and have a barbeque, usually well lubricated, before the more family-oriented Christmas. That’s fine, but it’s worth taking a moment to recall where we might be today in this country if it hadn’t been for the efforts of many people to promote a joint future and reconciliation rather than revenge.

So happy holidays, everyone, and may 2019 bring good things!


  1. What a rich list of holidays, Michael. I think the U.S. needs some more holidays: Trump Day (the day both Trump and Pence were removed from office), Recovery Day (the next day, when everyone recovered from their massive hangovers), Sorrow Day (the NEXT day, when everyone realized that some other putz had stepped into the gap), and... well, the possibilities seem endless (as does this 4-year period).

    Sorry, I seem to have gotten sidetracked (not an uncommon occurrence). What a rich, complex, sad, uplifting, glorious history is that of South Africa.

  2. EvKa - at least out of the current presidency we have a newly found and named blindworm that sticks its head in the sand!

  3. Wonderful, Michael. So happy to learn all this. I intend to celebrate Reconciliation Day, wherever I am, from now on. It seems like nothing short of a miracle to me that, after all he had suffered, upon his release, Nelson Mandela called for reconciliation and the people of South Africa responded as they did.
    When you consider what happened with other revolutions—especially the French and the Russian blood baths, your country deserves celebration, because you managed to make a very unlikely transition from strife to peace.

  4. Fascinating post, Michael. I, too, like the idea of celebrating Reconciliation Day, regardless of location.

  5. Thanks, everyone. Let's go for an annual Reconciliation Day. I guess we'll have no shortage of issues to be reconciled...

  6. Ye asked, Michael, and so shall you receive:

    Before the First Ecumenical Synod (First Council of Nicaea) in 325 the generally accepted method for determining the date for Easter (or Pascha) was to ask a Jew in the community when he celebrated Passover. That’s because, according to the lunar-based Hebrew Calendar (now into its 5779th year), the Jewish Holiday of Passover (or Pesach) was the occasion for the Last Supper, and the only dispute appeared to be over whether Easter should be celebrated on the Hebrew calendar’s date of Nisan 14 or the following Sunday.

    The First Ecumenical Synod changed all that by calculating the exact date of Easter based upon the then modern Julian calendar and ruling that Easter Sunday should fall on the Sunday that followed the first full moon after the vernal equinox, with the invariable date of the vernal equinox being March 21. If the full moon happened to fall on a Sunday, Easter was observed the following Sunday.

    Even though some in the Church did not agree with that determination, it became Christianity’s generally accepted method for calculating the date of Easter and continued to be so for more than five hundred years after the Great Schism of 1052 separated the Church of the West to Rome and the Church of the East to Constantinople (Istanbul).

    But in 1582 Pope Gregory XIII introduced what is known as the Gregorian calendar for the express purpose of correctly calculating Easter, something the Julian calendar was not believed to have achieved. Today, the Gregorian calendar is the world’s officially accepted civil calendar.

    And though the date of Easter remained the same as set in 325—the Sunday following the first full moon after March 21—it was now based upon the Gregorian calendar’s March 21, one different from March 21 on the Julian calendar. Add to that an “it’s-all-Greek-to-me” series of ecclesiastical moon, paschal full moon, astronomical equinox and fixed equinox calculations and you have a precise explanation for why there are often differing dates for Easter.

    Did you get that?