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Tony Deyal | Busman's holiday

Published:Saturday | May 28, 2016 | 5:00 AM

Thursday was a public holiday - Corpus Christi. When I was in elementary school, we called it 'Copper Christea' and nobody really sought to explain to us what it was about and how to pronounce it.

Perhaps my teachers in the Anglican school I attended may not have known themselves what it was all about, but it was a welcome day off among many in a country in which there are 17 official holidays in the year and the major 'holiday' event, carnival, to which two days are officially devoted and many more days and nights are consumed in its celebration, is not.

Some people contend that nobody really works in Trinidad and Tobago, so that every day is a holiday and that carnival is just a focus but not necessarily a locus. Others say that the term comes from the Latin 'carni-vale' or 'farewell to the flesh' and this makes it a 'holy' day deserving of official recognition. Barnhart's Dictionary of Etymology says that there was a compound word in Old English, 'halig daeg', which later became 'holy day', and then it was 'holiday', which meant not just a religious festival, but also a day of recreation.

In Guyana, the Hindu spring festival of Holi is a holiday in every sense of the word.

Corpus Christi is a holy day. The term is Latin for 'Body of Christ', and the holy day started in 1246 AD when acting on the visions of a nun, Juliana of Liege, the Catholic Church in Belgium and later throughout its domain, set aside a day of worship and commemoration.

Interestingly, while Corpus Christi is a public holiday in all or parts of 21 countries, it is not recognised by the Catholic Church as a holy day of obligation when attendance at Mass is compulsory. Personally, I always saw it as an obscure but welcome event without the punch of Christmas or Easter. As one of my more cynical friends said, "You Trinis like your holidays so much that you will make any day and every day a holiday." This is true.

The good news is that Trinidad is a country of many races and religions where no event is too small for celebration, no tune is so bad that the people would not dance to it, no race exists when the party starts, and the people celebrate the good, the bad, the ugly, the holy and the profane with gusto and liquor, food and fÍte, the more the merrier. It is also the bad news.

While there are people and organisations who are very concerned about the number of holidays in some countries like Trinidad and Tobago, and the UN agencies operating in these countries do not officially recognise them all, the American Embassy in Trinidad seems to have gone native with a vengeance and has more public holidays than the paltry number approved by the government.

 

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The US Embassy has 22 official holidays, including one celebrating the exploits of the recently unfashionable Columbus, whose reputation and recognition are now caught in a ship-storm of controversy. One waits on the outcome of the presidential elections later this year to discover the new world of President Trump, whose knowledge of Columbus, history and foreign affairs would be too scant to fit in the back of the celebratory postage stamp with Trump's face on it (far less the new Trump million-dollar bill).

The bad news is that Trump will think that Columbus is a godfather or mafia don with his own 'Circle' in Trump's native New York City and try to deport him. The good news is that he might mix up Columbus with Columbo and make him the city's new police chief.

In the rest of the region, Guyana has 18 official public holidays, one more than Trinidad and Tobago. Jamaica has 10, Barbados 13. What is interesting about Barbados is not just its reserve (except for the still tightly managed Kadooment), but that many people continue to use the term 'bank holiday' to mean any public holiday. It is a hangover from British rule and a reflection of the continued perception of the country as 'Little England'.

From 33 holidays that the Bank of England recognised in the preceding years, in 1834, the list was cut to four and then expanded. It is said that when Prince Charles was attending (briefly) a school in Australia, the rector of the local church was surprised one Sunday morning to see the Prince at his morning service. There were not many people around, and when Prince Charles was leaving, the rector apologised for the small size of the congregation.

"Being bank holiday weekend," he explained, "most of the parishioners are away." "Not another bank holiday?" exclaimed the Prince (in the manner of his father the Duke). "What's this one in aid of?" "Well," replied the rector, more than a trifle embarrassed, "Over here we call it the Queen's birthday."

Her Majesty's birthday no longer features on the list of any of the now independent Caribbean countries. It has been replaced by days recognising other institutions and organisations. In Guyana, unlike the other countries, there is something called CARICOM Day. When I was asked to explain its significance and how it is celebrated, I looked closely at the evidence and then said authoritatively, "It is a very special day dedicated to doing nothing at all and then waiting ten years for the results."

The one we all have in common is Labour Day, or in Barbados, International Workers Day. It is extremely significant and the best clue to understanding the sociology of the region. What you will find is the paradox that is at the heart of our way of life. Labour Day is a public holiday, and most of the people don't work on that day, but if you want them to, you must pay them triple time.

What is even more significant is that since many people don't work at work, every holiday in the Caribbean is what the British call a 'busman's holiday'.

- Tony Deyal was last seen saying that on Monday (May 30), the entire nations of Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago will celebrate Indian Arrival Day. One of my friends quipped, "It is a national event. Everybody arrives sober, but when they leave ... ."