Leading Article: Harmonised holidays

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IF Gillian Shephard and her advisers at the Department of Employment have their way, Britain may celebrate May Day as a public holiday only once more. Mrs Shephard won enthusiastic applause at last year's Tory party conference for attacking the institution of May Day as a piece of socialist dogma cooked up by Jim Callaghan and the TUC.

She is partly right: the idea of a holiday to commemorate the hard-won rights of workers was first dreamt up by the International Socialist Congress in 1889, and it has been celebrated by unions and parties of the left ever since. But its history goes back farther than that. Long before the institution of dancing around the maypole was revived by village parsons and schoolmistresses in Trollope's England, May Day was a pagan fertility festival. Parliament banned it in 1644 after Puritans complained that barely one in three of the virgins who went into the woods to celebrate returned intact. So Mrs Shephard will have precedent behind her if she succeeds in moving the May Day holiday to another month.

But how should the dates of public holidays be chosen in a modern democracy? The Foreign Office does not like us to celebrate victories such as Trafalgar in case it annoys allies and shows up Britain as embarrassingly obsessed with national sovereignty. There is nothing wrong in principle with celebrating past victories against present friends. France will do so with its 8 May commemoration of victory in the Second World War over the state that is now its closest ally. Britain would have every right, if it wished, to celebrate Agincourt or Waterloo or to join France on 8 May. Yet to start doing so now would seem bizarre and suspect.

Choosing new religious days would make less sense. A country that is home to an increasing number of people of different ethnic backgrounds should be gently retreating from a religious calendar, not moving towards embracing one. If national pride can be detached from nationalism, it might be better to leaf through the biographies of national heroes in search of birthdays to commemorate. The United States already does so. Not merely do its workers take time off for George Washington and Abraham Lincoln; more controversially, they now also do so for Martin Luther King.

Ideally, holidays should tap some vein of public feeling. Pagans had the sense to link their festivals to the seasons, and modern people can still respond to that. Christmas survives, although secularised, partly because it celebrates approximately the winter solstice. Easter just hangs on as a celebration of spring. Rationality may now bring in other considerations. Maastricht notwithstanding, the 12 countries of the EC are far from harmonising their public holidays. Although most have no more than 12 a year, there are a full 26 days every year on which people in some European country are staying at home. That is more even than Japan, which maintains an astonishing 21 public holidays a year. Here, surely, is a suitable subject to keep the bureaucrats in Brussels busy for years: a list of a dozen harmonised Eurohols.