Calling all tomb-sweepers, Maronites and subjects of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV: go on, spoil yourselves, take the day off

You are working tomorrow on the May Day bank holiday? Oh sorry. You must be an ambulance driver. So you will have to take another day in lieu to remember the toils of the working man.

Well why not. I know someone who makes Christmas lunches and sets up a tree with presents under it every August. It fits in better with her schedules. And we all know how inconvenient it is to arrive in, say, Tonga only to find out that it is the birthday of King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV and that all the shops are closed and there's nobody to fix your washing-machine. Why not let individuals choose their own holidays?

Once freed from collective holidays, the only remaining question will be how many each country should allow us. The UK currently has eight, which seemed reasonable to me until I once had the pleasure of working for a few months in Beirut. There the rule was to take as many holidays as possible in order to avoid the risk of giving affront to any rival sect, which, as the Lebanese know, can sometimes be a dangerous business.

During my brief stay I enjoyed two Easters (Roman and Orthodox), two major Islamic holidays (Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, both lasting several days) and the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura. Then there were holidays for the Druze, the Maronites,the Jacobites, the Syrian Orthodox, the Protestants, the Armenian Catholics, not to mention the really minor minorities. On the very few days where there was no holiday the country used to close down for a general strike instead. All in all I found it an excellent place to work on a short-term contract.

China is another place where a lack of consensus leads to a healthy double helping of holidays. The government in 1949 decided to replace traditional Chinese holidays with new secular ones like the Birthday of the People's Liberation Army or The Birthday of the Chinese Communist Party. Any excuse for a holiday I suppose. But in recent years the Chinese people have unilaterally reverted to celebrating all their ancient holidays as well. Woe betide you if you expect to get a plumber round in Peking on Tomb-Sweeping Day. As for Chinese New Year - never do so many couplets on so many red posters avert so many malevolent spirits. In other words, steer well clear of the Chinese world when a billion people are taking the entire week off work (next February for example).

The rest of the Far East, on paper, is equally well-endowed with holidays. The Japanese for example have fifteen official holidays per year, and the South Koreans have no fewer than seventeen. The only snag is that people in that part of the world prefer to carry on working during their holidays.

Another difficulty about collective holidays arises in those countries where everybody knows a holiday is coming, but nobody can tell you exactly when. In places like Bhutan astrologers have the power to shove in extra holidays at the last minute (these remarkable people can also authorise things like the skipping of inauspicious months).

By the way, the other end of the scale is that country not best known for holiday fun, Saudi Arabia, where there are only two official holidays per year and where you certainly don't worry about everything closing down if you happen to be visiting over Christmas.

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