How ‘holy days’ became vacation

The etymology of holiday is easy to see, coming from 'holy day,' a day of particular religious significance, often celebrating the life of a saint, during which no work was to be done.

Kirsty O'Connor/PA/AP
People sit on the pebbles of Brighton Beach, after heavy rain over the past days in Brighton, England on July 30, 2018.

I’m going on holiday soon. Technically, I should say “I’m going on vacation,” because I’m an American, and that’s the phrase we use. But I’ll be visiting my husband’s family in Britain, so let’s do as the British do and talk about holidays. 

The etymology of holiday is easy to see, coming from “holy day,” a day of particular religious significance, often celebrating the life of a saint, during which no work was to be done. As far back as the 11th century, “holidays,” especially the major feast days, were times of “festivity, recreation, and amusement,” as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. 

The number of holidays steadily increased during the Middle Ages, until a medieval Englishman would have had the luxury of 40 to 50 days a year off work, depending on where he lived, in addition to a free day on Sundays. 

During the Reformation, Henry VIII abolished most of the holidays that fell during the law terms and in summer, partly because of the Protestant suspicion of saints, but more practically, because, according to historian Eamon Duffy, “the excessive number of holidays were impoverishing the people by hindering agriculture.” “The people” took a different view and organized an uprising – the Pilgrimage of Grace – partly to protect their days off.

Though at first the religious and festive senses of holiday were inseparable, the word gradually came to be used for any kind of relaxing break from work. As the word became secularized, the number of authorized holidays was reduced, until by 1834 most workers had only four official days off a year, in addition to Sundays. Many factory workers extended this time by staying home on “Saint Monday” to recover from what they had gotten up to the day before. 

By the late 19th century, employers were compromising and offering half-day Saturdays, the beginning of the “weekend,” a term first used in 1879. In 1908, an innovative mill in New England gave its employees all of Saturday off, and the practice spread widely during the Great Depression as a way to keep employment up. It took 400 years, but finally workers could enjoy as many holidays as they had in the 15th century. 

Mine is going to be a little bit of a busman’s (British) or postman’s (US) holiday. These terms refer to a break during which a person continues to do for enjoyment what he or she normally does for employment. A bus driver likes to ride around and see the city on her days off, according to theories of the origins of the phrase; a postman might take a long walk on his. I will be looking out a different set of windows, still thinking about language.

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