Easter is late this year, occurring on April 20 (compared with March 31 last year), but already chocolate eggs and hot cross buns have appeared in the supermarkets, tempting shoppers who have barely stowed away the Christmas decorations and paid off their credit cards to anticipate another feast.
The world of Mammon has an ambivalent relationship with religion. It exploits religious festivals but complains about the lost production time and profit that they inflict on business when they intrude on the working week, as Christmas recently did.
The gods of the economy do not like movable feasts. Easter, for example, can add two holidays to the March financial quarter one year and to the June quarter the next, throwing financial calculations out. And so, to placate the deities, Richard Conn Henry, a former NASA astrophysicist, and applied economics professor Steve Hanke, have come up with the Hanke-Henry Permanent Calendar as a rational alternative to the four-century-old Gregorian calendar organised around Easter.
The economists have a point. It certainly is inconvenient when a manufacturing plant has to close down for the best part of a fortnight because Christmas and New Year occur on Wednesday. What difference would it make if these two anniversaries always occurred on a Sunday? Or if other public holidays stopped popping up in the middle of the week and found a home in the weekend? (The Hanke-Henry calendar would absorb as many as eight national US holidays into weekends, thus saving the country, they say, $150 billion a year.)
It would, of course, make a big difference to workers if it meant that their total holiday time were reduced. They would fight that tooth and nail, and so they should. The fair thing would be to compensate workers by extending their annual holidays. They would get four weeks instead of three and, most importantly, the dark satanic mills could keep grinding for the benefit of all.
What about public spirit? The number crunchers would probably argue that, if independence day, remembrance day or Queen’s birthday really mean something to citizens they would mean as much on Saturday or Sunday as on Monday or Thursday. Even Labour Day could be suitably Sunday-ised, the Sabbath being the original day off work.
As it happens, the Sabbath itself disappears in some suggested alternatives to the Gregorian calendar, but the Hanke-Henry version preserves the Saturday, Sunday weekend, so that religious groups have no cause to complain on that score. Furthermore, as the promoters point out, religions can keep using their own calendars for their annual cycle of feasts, just as farmers would continue to follow their seasonal calendar in things related to agricultural production.
It is not clear what the Hanke-Henry system would mean for Easter – whether Good Friday or the following Monday would remain public holidays. But, since Good Friday is purely a Christian solemnity, it seems likely, under a new regime, to drop off the public calendar and thus prevent a four-day production shut-down.
(In New Zealand that would close a debate over the opening of garden centres and other shops on that day to cater for workers who want to spend a day off doing home improvements or sunning themselves in cafes. If it is not even a holiday, then it’s business as usual for everyone.)
Even if there were no extra public holidays attached to Easter the Church could continue happily to observe the feast on the first Sunday on or after the first full moon following the Spring equinox (March 21) – a date determined by the death of Christ on the eve of the Jewish Passover. Christians could negotiate with their employers if they wanted Good Friday off. So, why inflict Easter holidays on the economy for the sake of a Christian feast when other religious groups do not have that privilege for their own high days and holy days – and when many Christians themselves do not observe it?
The question seems to answer itself. And yet, something would be lost, culturally, by the privatising, or submerging, of religious feasts.
Those eruptions of sacred festivals through the fabric of the workaday world – few as they are now — are a reminder man is made for more than work and pleasure. We do not live to work, but work to live, and there is more to living than bread and circuses. The soul needs nourishing by the contemplation of the world, the ultimate questions it raises, the cultural expressions arising from this spiritual activity and the deepening of human relations it enables. There has to be room in society for philosophy and the arts, and ultimately for religion itself.
Sunday alone cannot serve us in this way because it has become so secularised and commercialised. The Christian Sabbath is fast merging with Saturday as merely time off from work, and for the sake of work (workers need rest, or at least distraction, in order to work well) rather than for its own sake. The virtual disappearance of religious feasts from the public calendar might be welcomed by secularists but it would signal the triumph of the production cycle over other aspects of civilisation.
The danger of this trend to human freedom and dignity was highlighted in the years immediately after World War II by the German philosopher Joseph Pieper in his essay, Leisure the Basis of Culture. As Europe feverishly went about rebuilding its cities and homes, Pieper raised the question of another, and much more fundamental type of building: the kind of culture the West would have henceforward.
Would it be a culture in which man preserved his freedom to rise above everyday needs and wants and to enjoy the use of all his gifts and qualities, including such “useless” faculties as contemplation and philosophising? Would we be free to receive the world as a gift (from God) and to express our gratitude and joy in worship? Would we thus have the capacity for leisure and culture?
Or would we accept a world of “total work” in which everything, including intellectual activity and art is the result of human striving and strain, in which everything of value is produced by man and nothing can be accepted simply as a gift? A world of festivals without gods (Labour Day, or the kind of holidays and “saints” manufactured for the short-lived French Revolutionary calendar) and ultimately a world without true leisure – only circuses – or culture, or freedom?
Modern efforts to reform the calendar suggest that the choices the West has been making in the last 60 years or so are for a world of “total work”, a kind of enslavement to the material world and our efforts to “make something of it”.
The biblical scholar Scott Hahn has suggested that this tendency may be a meaning of the Apocalyptic “number of the beast”: 666 as a repeating number indicates “a man stalled in the sixth day, serving the beast who concerns himself with buying and selling without rest for worship,” and, Pieper would add, unable to attain the freedom of leisure and culture.
No doubt the Gregorian calendar, after 400-plus years could stand another tweak to make it more rational. But first we should be clear about what sort of rationale would serve humanity best, or we may end up with something that will put us in mere servitude to the economy, itself become an all-consuming beast.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.