Archduchess Maria Theresa, wife of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Franz Stephan of Habsburg-Lothringen, is on the way to her desk. She is about to enact another of her many reform laws. The one we are interested in significantly reduced the number of public holidays in Austria. Before Maria Theresa attached her signature and her seal to this law, approximately 40 feast days in addition to 52 Sundays were public holidays in the city. In the countryside there were almost twice as many feast days. In other words, up to 1/3 of the year was leisure time. Moreover, on the day before a feast day, the workday ended at 4 pm., so as to have enough time to prepare for the next day’s festivities and to pray vespers.

After this reform was enacted, only 20 feast days were still public holidays. It is not the reordering of the secular calendar or the reform of public holidays as such that makes this decision worth mentioning. It is the wind of change that was blowing through Europe at that time, which finally had reached Austria. Maria Theresa wanted to foster economic growth in Austria, and one political measure to achieve this goal was the increase of the working hours. Slowly but surely, the materialistic inner-worldly dimension of man’s existence gained importance in everyday life to the disadvantage of the spiritual dimension.

In those days, the remaining holidays were still holy days, days especially dedicated to the religious cult that freed man from the reductionist and de-humanizing horizontal view of human existence, and opened up his existence to the abundance of heaven. At least for the time being, the Sunday remained the Lord’s Day.

A very good indicator of how dramatically things have changed is the number of working hours in various epochs. Roughly speaking, a worker in the late mediaeval times worked between 1600 and 2300 hours a year. A regulation for artisans as enacted by Emperor Leopold I on June 17, 1661, which according to the Austrian historian Anton Tautscher is also indicative of the late medieval period, prescribed the following working hours: from the feast day of St. George (April 23) to the feast day of St. Michael (September 29), the working time was from 4 am to 7 pm, and from Michaeli to Georgi from sunrise to sunset. During summer, 3 hours were additionally off, in spring and autumn 2 hours, and in winter 1 hour.

In the industrial revolution, the average worker in the United States worked almost twice as much as a mediaeval man. 3150-3650 working hours were quite common, which translates into nearly 10 hours every single day of the year or almost 12 hours six days a week, with no other days off. In “The Town Laborer” the progressive authors John L. and Barbara Hammond report even longer working hours for England:

The fourteen or fifteen hours’ confinement for six days a week were the ‘regular’ hours; in busy times hours were elastic and sometimes stretched to a length that seems almost incredible. Work from 3 a.m. to 10 p.m. was not unknown; in Mr. Varley’s Mill, all through the summer they worked from 3.30 a.m. to 9.30 p.m.

Presently, the working hours of an employee fall below even the level of the medieval age. In 2012 the average hours worked in Austria were approximately 1700 hours and 1400 hours for dependent workers. 142 days per year were work-free (52 Saturdays and Sundays, 13 public holidays, and 25 days of entitled holidays). Yet it has to remembered that in contrast with mediaeval times, women now tend to be employed, at least part-time. And to make the workload more comparable, commuting times should be factored in as well.

This data debunks the classical-liberal contention that the generations of the industrial revolution had to endure their hardship so as to enable the subsequent generations to profit from the increase of the capital stock, and that the reduction of working hours over the last 100 years is thus owed to the industrial revolution’s ability to increase the capital stock. In the end, it is ideas that form the formal and informal institutions of a society. The massive increase in working hours during the industrial revolution reflected the summum bonum of the new ethics. In The Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber characterizes this new ethics as follows: “Man is dominated by the making of money, by acquisition as the ultimate purpose of his life. Economic acquisition is no longer subordinated to man as the means for the satisfaction of his material needs.”

Economic rationalism that made man subservient to the allegedly autonomous mechanics of the economy, instead of making the economy subservient to man’s strive for holiness, is responsible for the flattening of the week and the year. An investment or a machine brings increased profit when it is up and running 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Sundays and other feast days prevent the machines from producing ever more material goods. Moreover, the machine does not have to rest, as the workers have to and ought to. In Her message Our Lady of La Salette thus laments: “I gave you six days to work; I kept the seventh for myself, and no one will give it to me.” Furthermore, the increasing mechanization of the production process deprived man from being in charge of it. It was no longer the craftsman who set the working pace but the machine, and the workers became enslaved to the restlessness of the conveyor belt.

In short, the very good order of God’s creation had to cave in to the materialist transfiguration of life. The idol mammon was the new, false Gold that was worshipped. Sacrificed on the altar of mammon and economic growth were natural associations such as family, friendship, and the state, as well as human dignity, physical integrity, and the salvation of the soul.

The gift of Emperor Constantine to the Christians as well to the pagans, to declare the Dies Domini a work-free day, was rejected. On March 3, 321, Constantine had decreed:

All judges and the people in the city should rest, and the work in all the crafts should cease, on the holy Sunday. But the people in the country may freely and lawfully apply themselves to the culture of the fields, since it often happens that grain can be sown in the furrows and vines planted in the trenches on no better day, so that the benefit conferred by the providence of God may not perish with the opportunity of the moment.

Another exemption was the release of slaves. In the fourth and fifth centuries, it became forbidden to organise public theatre plays, circus performances and the like in order to not disturb the Sunday rest and to not lead the Christians into temptation to attend secular performances instead of fulfilling their religious obligations on Sunday. Already around the year 200 Tertullian had put forward the argument in De Spectaculis why Christians should not attend games and shows. They are steeped in idolatry.

For a moment, we return to the high influence of industrialism on the sharp reduction of the feast days and ultimately on the abolition of the work-free Sunday. The following example demonstrates that classical liberalism and socialism are not antipodes of the ideological spectrum as almost everybody assumes these days. For the same reason of economic efficiency that the capitalist-entrepreneurs put forward, the Soviet Union in 1929 rescinded all legislation regulating the Sunday rest, as production should not be interrupted on Sundays. Instead of a 6-day work week, the workers had to work 4 days in a row with 3 days off, with each quarter of the workforce starting their 4-day shift on a different day. Through this re-organisation of the work schedule, the effective number of working days increased by 20% from 300 to 360 days. The remaining 5 days were public holidays, commemorating the heroes of the Russian Revolution.

But as is always the case when the natural rhythm of creation is not followed, this highly rationalistic working scheme had to be abandoned. In their ideological drive for higher efficiency the people’s commissars overlooked that some tasks in a company require a permanent presence. While the unskilled worker can be replaced by another one, any specifically skilled worker cannot, nor can those employees who are in charge of ensuring the work process, such as a manager or the secretary. They have indispensable knowledge for the co-ordination of the working process.

The Soviet experience as well as the experience of the industrial revolution demonstrate that it was necessary to re-introduce the work-free Sunday. Not only because of the pressure of the Church and the trade unions so that the workers could fulfill their religious duties and spend time with their family, not only because the workers required a break in order to re-generate themselves, but also because it simplified the working processes. A shared rhythm of life within a family, a community, and a society is useful and practical.

One form of secularizing the holy days is simply to abolish them for the sake of economic progress, which more often than not is equated with personal and societal progress. From a materialist-progressive perspective, religious feasts delay the coming of the redemption of man through the abundance of material goods. They are not only futile, but counter-productive.

Sunday as Spare Time

Another way is to conceive of Sunday not as the Lord’s Day, Domenica, but just as spare time.

While it is now widely believed that the abandonment of the duty to worship on Sunday is an act of liberation and thereby increases the time available for self-determined activities, this false notion of freedom brings about the self-reduction of man to a proletarian. Josef Pieper defines a proletarian as a person “being bound to the working process.” Proletarianness is thus not a question of income. The term defines a specific habitus that reduces man to a being that only works and consumes. “Within the world of total work,” Pieper continues in his seminal work Leisure: the Basis of Culture:

The ”festival” is either “a break from work” (and thus only there for the sake of work), or it is a more intensive celebration of the principles of work itself (as in the ”Labor Days,” and thus belongs, again, to the working world). […] There is nothing, then, to keep the world of the ”worker” from being a poor, sterile world, even though filled with material goods; thanks to the principle of utility, in virtue of which the ”world of work” comes into being, there can be no real wealth, no overflow. Wherever something is left over, this excess will be subjected again to the principle of rational utility.

Pope Benedict XVI argued likewise: “If the Sunday is just spare time, then the Sunday remains a function of work, then we remain slaves of the working-process.” In the end the demotion of Sunday to spare time does also destroy the meaning of work, because consuming goods does not satisfy our longing for transcending ourselves and for existential joy.

The basic error of consumerism and the chrematistic spirit lies in the misconception that the fullness of man’s existence is achieved through producing and amassing material goods, not through sharing and giving. Pieper writes:

It is in the nature of religious festival to make a space of abundance and wealth, even in the midst of external poverty in material things. This is because sacrifice is at the center of the festival. What is sacrifice? It is voluntary, a gift that is offered, and certainly not usefulness, but the very opposite of usefulness.

So a religious festival is an act of giving, an act of sharing one’s fruits with the beloved and above all of making a sacrifice to God. It is the exact opposite of the chrematistic logic of amassing material goods, of defining oneself through the “to have,” instead of the “to be.” And as life is characterised by permanently transcending oneself, because the logic of life is love, “to be” in fact means “to give out of love.”

Because the modern idea of a strict separation of the work world from the other areas of life is untenable, it does not come as a surprise that the logic of rationalistic planning even got a grip on the spare time. The caring, loving, and gracious family father cannot turn from one moment to the other into the utility maximizing homo economicus at work, who only seeks his self-interest and does not care for his co-workers. There is nothing like a switch that changes the disposition of the soul from the logic of utilitarianism to the logic of love. When work or the fruits of work become the ultimate end of man’s existence, this change in attitude permeates all areas as life.

The Weekend

Another closely related tendency to strip off the religious significance of the Lord’s Day is the inflationary use of the term ‘weekend’.

The “International Organization for Standardization” defines the week as consisting of seven weekdays. According to this international norm – ISO 8601 “Date and Time Standard” –, the first day of the week is Monday and the last day is Sunday. The Christian understanding of Sunday as the first day of the week, as “the weekly Easter, THE DAY OF THE LORD and the day of man, the day of the family, of the community, and of solidarity” (Pope Benedict XVI) is not reflected in this definition.

Yet, the Lord’s Day gives us a foretaste of the eternal joy that we are hoping for and is thus not the end (of the week). Rather it is the beginning of life, the weekly celebration of the new man for whom eternal life is possible again because of the death and resurrection of Our Lord. As the first day of the week, Sunday gives us time to re-orientate ourselves to the eternal good, and this re-orientation provides us with the necessary strength to not lose sight of the eternal good during the remainder of the week. It is not so much a day of rest in the sense of complete inactivity, but a day of worship, community life, and acts of Christian Charity. Sunday is the day of days by which deeper meaning should transcend the remainder of the week.

Man as Homo Religiosus and Festivus

Can man live without festivities, without at least some days that follow a different logic than the remainder of the year? To put the question differently: Is a purely horizontal view of life imaginable at all?

In his book The Spirit of Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger remarks that because man is “homo religiosus,” a being created to bind himself to the Absolute through which we can overcome the contingency of this world, he will always create some form of religious cult:

Worship gives us a share in heaven’s mode of existence, in the world of God, and allows light to fall from that divine world into ours. In this sense, worship has the character of anticipation. It lays hold in advance of a more perfect life and, in so doing, gives our present life its proper measure. A life without such anticipation, a life no longer opened up to heaven, would be empty, a leaden life. That is why there are in reality no societies altogether lacking in cult. Even the decidedly atheistic, materialistic systems create their own forms of cult, though, of course, they can only be an illusion and strive in vain, by bombastic trumpeting, to conceal their nothingness.

We can observe that every ideology and every group develops rites in a very short time. In fact, the management technique of “group building” explicitly teaches that any assembly of man, in order to become a functioning group, has to develop some rites and festivities that intend to strengthen the group’s unity and joint heritage, as meagre as it may be in the beginning. The development of rites enables a group to engage with society, which provides an excellent opportunity to testify convictions and to proselytize. But because of their shallowness, these public proclamations “conceal their nothingness” through “bombastic trumpeting.” The Christopher Street Day is an illustrative case in point.

National Holidays

Public holidays reflect the predominant understanding of what is constitutive for a given society. As the process of secularization is defined by the privatization of religion, religious feast days have become less and less normative for the entire society. States have become multi-religious entities and define themselves as neutral to all religions. Therefore, many put forward the demand that the state should not privilege a specific religion. And that is why, either openly as in the case of the USA or through the backdoor as in many formerly Catholic countries, the state or the nation or the constitution as founding document became the summum bonum, the highest good of a society. William T. Cavanaugh argues: “The nation-state may be understood theologically as a kind of parody of the Church, meant to save us from division.” The unifying element of the society is not God nor the Emperor, but a more or less abstract idea of being one nation, which is celebrated, declaimed and strengthened on the occasion of national holidays such as July 4, July 14, and May 17.

Whereas in the Western world the nation-wide celebration of Christmas is more and more often considered as illegitimate superimposition of a creed, even Christmas greetings are considered offensive and are replaced by the meaningless formulation “seasonal greetings,” the non-celebration, not to speak of the public questioning of July 4, Thanksgiving Day, and Memorial Day, is more or less a public sacrilege.

This tendency of celebrating the nation and of commemorating important dates in the history of the nation, is itself an expression of the creeping depersonalization of the modern, secular times and the massification of society. Moreover, almost all of the increasing number of secular commemoration days, awareness days, food days, etc. do not deal with concrete persons. An event, an illness, a dish, a thing is commemorated, more or less detached from the concrete persons. Contrast this with the feast days of the Church. Day by day the Church commemorates the life of concrete persons and their concrete deeds, their concrete sufferings be it the life of Our Lord, of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or of all the saints.

In contrast to a particular saint, who is one within the communion of saints, the secular awareness days fail to address one of the most urgent anthropological problems of the western world: the restoration of the completeness of man. There is no hierarchical order, no possibility to distinguish between more important and less important festivities and above all, they do not form a complete whole. It is just a line-up of one pseudo-festivity after the other.

Reinterpretation and Mocking

Another way to secularize the holy days is the decided reinterpretation and mocking of Catholic festivities.

As the last three to four decades have been decades without outspoken ideological conflicts addressing the very foundation of society – a time that is about to come to a close – , some examples from the Austro-Marxist movement of the inter-war period in Austria are very illustrative for our purpose.

Then Austria had a rather strong Austro-Marxist movement. The main challenge for the Marxists was to replace the Church’s influence on every believer from the cradle to the grave and all year round. The weekly Holy Mass on Sundays, the feast days, the processions and the pilgrimages gave the believers numerous occasions to participate in joint festivities that reminded them of the deeper meaning of life and guaranteed a flourishing community life, even for non-believers.

In order to erect a Marxist counter-culture, for example the idea of a “Red Baptism” and a “Red funeral” were contemplated. The Holy Sacrament of confirmation was replaced by the Jugendweihe, as later in the GDR. Easter was blasphemously re-interpreted and brought in direct relation to the coming of the “Redeemer” Socialism, as was Christmas in the year 1923, when Karl Marx was brought into direct relation with Christ. In 1924 the Austro-Marxist were mocking the Corpus-Christi-procession, as they were carrying statutes of Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lassalle on velvet cushions.

Bank Holiday

The complete perversion of the idea of holiday is the term “bank holiday,” yet not in the sense of a public holiday, but to “bank holidays” which lack one essential aspect of a holiday: That everyone benefits from it.

A bank holiday has for example been decreed by FDR by executive order No. 2039 on March 6, 1933 just 2 days after the president of the New Deal had taking office. This executive order states:

During such holiday, […], no such banking institution or branch shall pay out, export, earmark, or permit the withdrawal or transfer in any manner or by any device whatsoever, of any gold or silver coin or bullion or currency or take any other action which might facilitate the hoarding thereof; nor shall any such banking institution or branch pay out deposits, make loans or discounts, deal in foreign exchange, transfer credits from the United States to any place abroad, or transact any other banking business whatsoever.

Bank holidays have usually led to the result that John Q. Public had to write down a significant share of his claims to the bank, while the owners and managers especially of the big banks were not called to account, at least not in proportion to their responsibility. Bearing this in mind, the only ones to celebrate during such holidays are those who manoeuvred a bank or even the entire banking system to the brink of collapse. For the bank customers, these holidays are days of suffering and more often than not lead to their impoverishment.


Ideas shape the formal and informal institutions of a society, thus today’s social institutions reflect yesterday’s predominant ideas. As a consequence, the still high number of public holidays on the occasion of Catholic feast days in Austria is a gift of the past, but not more. It is a gift of a time when the percentage of practicing Catholics in Austria was significantly higher than today. Thus it is to be expected that the pressure to reduce the number of these public holidays will quite likely mount in the coming years. For example, in spring 2013 “The Federation of the Austrian Industries” demanded to move both the Feast of Ascension and of Corpus Christi, from Thursday to Friday, so as to get rid of the “long weekends.” The very idea that these holidays can be moved at will clearly indicates that the religious foundation of these feast days has been completely lost. They are still public holidays but not holy days any more.

At the same time, the general trend towards individualisation and pluralisation will most likely increase the pressure on the government to individualize the calendar of public holidays and to grant other religious communities public holidays as well.

In order to forestall the further secularization of the public sphere as an expression of the non-discrimination policy towards the various communities of faith, return to the principle of subsidiarity is the best way to deal with the heterogeneity of modern societies. Instead of conceiving of society as a melting pot, which supplants all cultural and religious differences with a civil religion, local and regional communities should be granted the legal, political and economical means to shape their immediate environment according to their respective beliefs.

Gregor Hochreiter is director of “Oekonomika – Institute for Applied Economics and Western Christian Philosophy” ( The institute has its seat in Vienna, Austria.

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  1. Some of my reading suggests that in America, at least, in the early industrial age people were treated less as machines than they were later. At first their work schedules were designed around their agricultural and family lives; later it was the other way around. I’d like to learn more about how that transition came about. As far as I know the points you made about it are correct.

    In the later industrial age, the W.K. Kellogg Company instituted a 6-hour day so mothers could work and also be at home when their children. That option was eliminated some time ago — in the late 80s or early 90s IIRC. The industrial-welfare state made it too difficult and expensive.

    In many respects, socialism = double-plus capitalism.

    (I would have kept quiet, but I have to enter some kind of comment in order to get e-mail notification of additional comments.)

  2. Interestingly enough, even working for a parish I don’t get all HDO off. I get more than secular institutes, but we really do have very few festivals in America that aren’t secular. And, when we do…there usually isn’t a festival.

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