Exactly How Many Holidays Do We Have, Anyway?
So it’s Christmas time. And Hanukkah and Kwanzaa time. And it all follows Thanksgiving and then is promptly succeeded by New Year’s Eve and the Feast of the Epiphany.
Yikes. That’s a lot of holidays. For employers and company managers, this means a lot of decisions about what days the business should be closed – and regardless of those decisions, it means lost productivity. It’s hard to estimate how much productivity is lost due to the November and December holidays, but if the Super Bowl is any guide – and $820 million in productivity is lost during Super Bowl week – then it could be in the billions of dollars. As one famous old curmudgeon noted, the whole thing is a poor excuse for picking a business owner’s pocket every December.
My colleague Andrew Torrez wrote recently about the history of the Christmas holiday. But looking at this more generally: how did we wind up with the number of holidays that we have now? Did we always have this many?
There used to be more – at least in the United Kingdom. Until 1834, the UK had over thirty “bank holidays” (a public holiday that began as the days on which the Bank of England was closed and business stopped – but today really has nothing to do with banks). In that year, the number of holidays was radically cut back to 4. Then, however, “holiday creep” started – with Parliament adding four more days in 1871, and four more over the time since then (although curiously, Scotland has one more bank holiday than England and Wales).
That same “holiday creep” has happened on our side of the pond as well. A fascinating report from the Congressional Research Service explains how the first federal holidays – New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas – were only holidays for federal employees working in the District of Columbia. Over time, federal employees were given holidays no matter where they worked, and those four holidays were expanded to ten (but federal employees in the District of Columbia still get one special benefit their colleagues elsewhere don’t get: Inauguration Day off once every four years). We wrote specifically about the creation of the Labor Day the day here.
Not only has the federal government expanded the number of holidays, it has moved them around – and not without controversy. Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the third Thursday at the request of retailers, but was accused of being unpatriotic and – God forbid – interfering with college football schedules. When Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968 – which placed several of the holidays on fixed Mondays, instead of fixed dates which could fall on any day of the week – businesses and labor were overwhelmingly in favor of the change and lobbied hard for it, over the objections of schools that feared that moving Washington’s Birthday from its actual date to the third Monday in February did not do him justice.
By the way, recent proposals to create two new holidays – one to honor Cesar Chavez and the other on Election Day – have not advanced in Congress.
Regardless of the number of holidays or the date, it’s important to remember that federal and state holidays are only that – holidays on which the government is closed. If you’re a private sector executive or manage a private business, you have much more flexibility in the holidays you give to your staff.
Bear in mind, though, the proven benefits of a little time off on morale. Employers who stand out for being difficult about giving holiday time off get a reputation like this guy had before he was set on a better course by three ghosts.