Workingman’s holiday blues

Posted: November 16, 2009 in Society

Christmas at McDonalds


One of the cruelest developments in the working world over the past thirty years is the inclusion of traditional holidays – such as Boxing Day and New Year’s Day – into the working year. Most middle class professionals aren’t affected by this, and probably do not realise the extent to which working people oppose and resent the encroachment of work into their traditional days of rest.

When the manager at Domino’s Pizza – where I currently work part-time – told everyone which days they must work over the Christmas period, there was a collective groan from the staff. I was told I would be working from 5pm until 9pm on Christmas Eve, and the same on Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Others would have to work until 11pm. One girl was surprised that Domino’s had extended their closing time on Christmas Eve from 9pm (last year) until 11pm. Another worker – who being 16 earns a meagerly £3.57 per hour – said how he had hoped to visit his father over Christmas, as he rarely has time to do so.

If this society continues on its present course I am certain that in 20 years time it will be normal for shops and fast-food outlets to be open on Christmas Day. Something unthinkable as little as thirty years ago. How things have changed from earlier periods in England’s history, when festivals were treated with deep respect and when holidays were just that – holy days.

During the middle ages the Christmas festivities lasted a full twelve days, during which people engaged in great feasting and merrymaking. It wasn’t just Christmas which provided days of celebration though. The whole year was full of days which people were obliged to take off work – Saints days, Easter etc.

In Medieval England, it wasn’t the goal of material prosperity or ‘progress’ which governed the economy of the country, it was God. Medieval accounting books began with the words “For God and for profit”. As David Boyle points out in his excellent essay, Economic Thought in the Middle Ages (published in The Idler #42), this doesn’t mean that business didn’t exist during that period. On the contrary, it boomed all across Europe. The Hanseatic League is evidence of that. The difference between then and now is that the rules which governed business in Medieval Europe were religious rules, based on cooperation and fairness (see Aquinas’s idea of a just price). They were rules designed to benefit everyone, to reflect Christ’s teachings and ultimately, to glorify God.

The change in thinking since then has been radical. Competition has replaced cooperation, and ‘growth’ has replaced God. Work has come to dominate. Many people will be lucky to get more than three days off work this Christmas. The economy struggles to give us any time off at all, and when a holiday is forced upon us – as with the great snow day earlier this year – economists bemoan the loss of money it causes. In playing Malvolio to our Toby Belch, they seek in earnest to take away our cakes and ale. Unlike Malvolio however, they are succeeding.

Photo credit: financeguy 高志傑

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