This week has been filled with holidays: with Rosh Hashanah, for Jews; and with Eid al-Fitr, for Muslims. Both religions follow a lunar calendar, which means that their holidays do not always align – but I love it whenever they do.
I also love that these holidays are increasingly recognized in the United States, both by schools and businesses. Jewish and Muslim students and workers are more able today to request time off from work or school without prejudice than they were fifteen or twenty years ago. And in some communities, particularly those with long-standing multi-faith populations, these holidays may be publicly commemorated: with a menorah in a town square, for Hanukkah; or a mayoral iftar, for Ramadan.
I love these changes, but I also want more. And holidays are an area in which I think we could learn something from Lebanon.
Here is one list of all Lebanon’s 2008 public holidays:
1 Jan New Year’s Day.
6 Jan Orthodox Armenian Christmas.
10 Jan Islamic New Year.
19 Jan Ashoura.
9 Feb Feast of St Maroun.
20 Mar Mawlid al-Nabi (Prophet’s Birthday).
21 Mar Good Friday.
23 Mar Easter Sunday.
25 Apr Orthodox Good Friday.
27 Apr Orthodox Easter.
1 May Labor Day.
6 May Martyrs’ Day.
13 May Resistance and Liberation Day.
15 Aug Assumption of the Virgin.
2 Oct Eid al-Fitr (End of Ramadan).
1 Nov All Saints’ Day.
22 Nov Independence Day.
9 Dec Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice).
25 Dec Christmas Day.
29 Dec Islamic New Year.
There are a lot of holidays in Lebanon, you might be thinking. And you are right – but they aren’t all celebrated in the same way. There are two categories of holidays: holidays that apply to everyone, and holidays that apply to people of a particular religious background.
Let me address this second category first. These “members-only” observances are used for the holidays of Lebanon’s minority communities. For example, the entire country does not celebrate Armenian Christmas. But Armenians are expected to be given the day off, with no negative repercussions from teachers or employers.
This is somewhat like what I see happening with Jews and Muslims in the US (or Hindus who want to celebrate Diwali), although with two key differences. First, it is not mandated by the national or state government; and second, it is not universal. In Lebanon, my understanding (which may be wrong – so please correct me if so!) is that employers are required to give members of the celebrating faith the day off, and the government can take legal action against them if they do not. This aspect of holiday’ing makes me a bit uncomfortable – as a product of the separation of church (or synagogue, or mosque) and state, I dislike the idea that people should be automatically defined by their religious affiliation.
Also, in the case of the particular example I gave above, it can get a bit confusing. All Armenians do not celebrate Christmas on January 6 – there are different denominations within the Armenian community. Yet all Armenians are, at least officially, granted the day off. (I would argue that this is one of many indications of Lebanon’s Ottoman heritage. In the Ottoman Empire, “Armenian” was a catch-all millet category that mashed together religious identity and ethnicity – just like “Greek” did. Hence “Armenians” included all ethnic Armenians, who are both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic, and Maronites.)
So: I am not advocating the Lebanese system of insisting that people of a particular religion must celebrate its holidays – after all, we as a country are officially religion-blind.
But I am interested in thinking seriously about the first category of holidays: those that everyone celebrates, at least in the sense of having the day off from work or school. In Lebanon, as here in the US, everyone celebrates national days, like Independence Day and Labor Day.
And in Lebanon, as in the US, everyone celebrates certain religious holidays, like Christmas and New Year’s Day. In the US, these holidays follow the Western Christian calendar. But in Lebanon, they follow the Western and Eastern Christian calendars, and they include the Muslim calendars as well. So everyone celebrates Orthodox Easter as well as Western Easter; and everyone celebrates Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and the Prophet’s birthday.
The exact list of holidays seems to shift from year to year – in 2009, for example, Armenian Christmas does appear to be an official holiday. And for the past two years, the Lebanese government has been considering removing Good Friday from the holiday list – inspiring copious amounts of over-heated rhetoric as well as public protests.
I’m not advocating that we adopt the Lebanese system. As nice as 16 holidays might be, what we need to focus on now is increasing our national productivity, not reducing it.
But I think that as we mature into a country that that not only recognizes but embraces the multiple faiths that our citizens follow, we ought also to spend some time thinking seriously about our national holidays.
Erecting a public menorah and holding a city-wide iftar are important symbols. But adding a day to commemorate Yom Kippur or celebrate Eid al-Adha might be gestures of greater substance.