The bias of the Christian calendar
There is no “secular year”
Next to the end-of-semester rushes in November and March, the beginning of the school year is arguably the time we most need one of those flashy personal planners from Indigo (and yes, I have one).
Scrambling to find one’s footing, going from zero or one to four or five classes, starting student jobs, and inevitably over-committing to whatever else is going on in the fall, most people can agree in late September or early October that they don’t need anything else to worry about. Many people also tell themselves, to soften the blow “I’ll get a break at the end of the semester when Christmas comes around.” For some of us, though, it just isn’t that simple.
Seeing Christmas, a decidedly Christian occasion, as the finish line for work and study is rarely actually done out of religiosity. No one needs to be a Christian to recognize the day; whether a person observes it as the birth of Jesus or not, our society collectively acknowledges its importance by closing businesses, cancelling classes, and structuring breaks in school and work around December 25.
In other words, whether you’re a Christian or not, you know when Christmas is, and it still affects your life in material ways. Those effects might just mean more decorations and music when you go out, but it’s a change from the norm nonetheless. It might even be accurate to say that without Christianity being the namesake for our two main breaks in the year (Christmas and Easter break), we wouldn’t really know how to conceptualize when work stops and starts.
For those with Christian families or family histories (whether you yourself believe in a deity) this all doesn’t make much of a difference. The “secular” and the “religious” are both hotly contested terms in their scope (what can we really be sure is totally unrelated to religion anyway? They definitely overlap when it comes to Christmas. You might celebrate the day, or you might not, but either way you have the day off or are offered extra pay for working. This means that people have the opportunity to be practising Christians – that the schedule of all people is arranged to create this opportunity.
This article is not, however, about Christmas. I use Christmas as an example because it may be the most universally-recognized holiday worldwide, “holiday” having both the meaning of “a day off” and of “holy day,” a religious observance.
I use Christmas because I want both Christians and cultural Christians (those for whom, religious or not, Christianity is the default conception of what religion is) to have a standard of comparison from this point on. When you are a person of faith who isn’t Christian, this standard of organizing calendars around Christian holidays can make your personal life out of sync with the accepted standard of everyone else. So imagine, for example, that Christmas was not on December 25 (which everybody has off) but on October 8, in the middle of the work or school week, at that beginning period of the year when all things are in full swing and you really don’t have time for a major holiday.
In case you didn’t know where I was going with this, that is precisely the situation I’m in as I write this. The evening of October 8 is the beginning of Yom Kippur, a holiday that is a lot different and quite frankly a lot more serious than Christmas, but which is comparable in its universal importance to Jews. Yom Kippur consists of a 25-hour fast and almost an entire day spent in prayer. It is the time of year when Jews engage in introspection about their past wrongdoings, for purposes of atonement and personal and community renewal. It’s a holiday that requires a lot of dedicated time and space, and a lot of intentionality. To have such a day at the start of the semester – the Hebrew calendar changes the date every year, so it’s often much earlier – takes away the opportunity to slow down and really appreciate the occasion.
I missed at least one half of my Jewish new year services this week, as I did last year, because I had class at the same time that I could not afford to miss. On the day I write this, I’m working an extra shift at my TA job so that I can take Yom Kippur off, and I’ll be missing class during the day as well. Working on a Jewish holiday is more than just undesirable; it’s actually prohibited by Jewish law, and on a day when I’m meant to atone for my sins it’s especially important that I don’t work. But although this is the rhythm of the Jewish year, it is a rhythm that is offbeat compared to the “regular” calendar – rather, the Christian one. There simply aren’t enough Jews in Regina to make a day off for Yom Kippur seem necessary to schools and workplaces (this is the main advantage of attending a Jewish university or working for a Jewish business). Instead, Jews have to scramble (like we aren’t already scrambling with everything else) to get the necessary days off, deal with what we miss, and hope that our bosses and professors will be understanding. But this isn’t right; your religious practice shouldn’t be up to the whim of others.
Even for Jews who may not observe Yom Kippur religiously, this part of the Hebrew calendar called the High Holidays is a time when family and community can come together. Sometimes it’s the only time the whole community is in one place. Just as families should be able to take time to come together for Christmas, there should be the opportunity, like the Christian opportunity, to celebrate if we choose.
Although there was no time (guess why!) for me to gather an adequate interview with students of other non-Christian faiths about this issue, I suspect that there are similar struggles to fit the Islamic calendar, for example, into the “regular” one. This can also intersect with racism and xenophobia in the workplace: for example, Shahin Indorewala, a Muslim worker in Virginia, was recently refused work because (as she believes) she requested two five-minute prayer breaks during the day that were met with mockery. I encourage future Muslim, Sikh, Hindu or other contributors to write on similar experiences they may have had.
Despite people who are not religious speaking of a “secular society,” it is easy to forget that few things are outside the influence of Christianity because of our state’s colonial foundation. Future conceptions of work and holiday should acknowledge that we all have different conceptions of sacred time – in fact, allowing us to take time off when we need it, rather than when it is mandated or allowed, is probably more conducive to a cooperative society where our needs are satisfied and our work can come from a place of rest and fulfillment.