The politics of bank holidays

May pole and dancers
Image caption Dancing round the May Pole is a May Day tradition

The government is considering scrapping the May Day Bank Holiday and creating a new public holiday in April or October. But what is the origin of our bank holidays and what do they tell us about the UK?

It seems almost too good to be true. Waking up to another four-day weekend, the second in a row for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Feels just a little bit indulgent.

But after an Easter weekend steeped in sunshine, most of us are only too happy to gobble up a double helping of bank holiday pudding, in the shape of the Royal Wedding and May Day.

But not everyone is feeling hungry for seconds. Not at Westminster anyway, where MPs have tabled a bill to scrap the May Day Bank Holiday in England and Wales and replace it with a new national day.

Under the proposals, the festivities would be moved to St George's Day in April in England and St David's Day in March in Wales, or a Trafalgar Day in October.

Ministers said the move would lengthen the tourist season, while business leaders are keen to spread out holidays to avoid a repeat of this year's 11-day bonanza, which some analysts estimate will cost the UK economy £30bn.

Spring and fertility

But the threat to May Day has riled both trade unions and rural traditionalists, for whom the first Monday is an agricultural festival whose roots stretch far beyond its modern association with Labour Day.

The curious history of our official bank holidays begins in 1871, when they were first recognised in an Act of Parliament authored by Sir John Lubbock. He was a banker who, it is said, was so keen on cricket he chose dates when village matches were played in his home county.

Image caption Mods and rocker would clash on Bank Holidays in the 60s

In truth, "St Lubbock's Days", as they were briefly known, were all associated with important religious festivals and agricultural holidays, says Prof John K Walton, a historian of British and Spanish tourism and national identities at the University of the Basque Country.

"Our bank holidays were made by the Victorians, but they are rooted in traditions which run far deeper than the holidays themselves. They underlined existing days of celebration. Mid-August, for example, was a traditional time for seaside bathing holidays, even before the advent of the railways."

December holidays are often thought of as Christian inventions, but the dates coincide with holidays which predate Jesus' birth, says Prof Bernard Capp, a historian at Warwick University.

"When the puritans abolished Christmas in 1647, they banned it twice over because it was both pagan and Popish. They looked back in history and saw that Christmas was predated by the Roman Saturnalia."

The public responded violently to the ban, particularly in Canterbury where rioting and looting broke out.

Notorious day

"The repercussions led eventually to a rebellion and a second Civil War," says Capp.

But while Christmas survived the reformation, many other traditional holidays were lost, he adds.

"Before the protestant reformation every village had its saint. But the reformers got rid of that and smashed the places of worship. Saints' days were wiped out, but somehow St George survived. He became a national figure and his identity was enough to outweigh the Pope."

May Day only became an official bank holiday in 1971, associated strongly with International Workers' Rights day, which some think has marked it out as a political target.

But its roots as a holiday stretch back to pre-Christian pagan festivals, and the Gaelic Beltane. The familiar rituals of dancing around the Maypole and the crowning of the May Queen made it a popular seasonal celebration in medieval England.

"May Day is associated with spring and fertility, the sowing of the seeds. It is a rural tradition," says Julie-Marie Strange, senior lecturer in Victorian Studies at the University of Manchester.

"It's things like May Day that remind us we were once an agricultural community. We've clung on to these traditions and I'm not sure why we'd want to get rid of them now."

When the industrial revolution came, working hours were no longer ruled by the agricultural seasons - they were ruled by the clock.

"For the factory bosses, the harvest had no relevance," says Strange. "It was all about getting as much work done in the daylight as possible. But the factories drew their workforce from the rural areas and that's where you get the clashes over time off."

Mondays were the biggest bone of contention, with working-class people deciding to take their own Monday holidays - known as Saint Mondays.

"It was a rural custom of taking Mondays off, or easy, that persisted in an industrial context", says Strange. "Although most employers tried to stamp it out."


Bank holidays quickly got a bad reputation and were associated with working people drinking too much. The August bank holiday was especially notorious.

"With the hot weather and beer combo, fights would break out," says Strange. "And if you look right up to the 1960s, you see that mods and rockers tended to clash more on Bank Holiday Mondays too, down at the seaside in Margate."

Image caption People have protested over the threat to May Day

But the holiday Mondays were not just about drinking, they were family days, rich in childhood memories and nostalgia.

"If you read Victorian autobiographies, bank holidays were always special," says Strange. "They were red letter days when you got a free day out of the everyday routine."

In working-class areas especially they were important for family and community cohesion. But as working culture changes, it has become harder and harder for everyone to get time off on the same day, says Walton.

"In the 1960s we had local town holidays, the days when the local factories closed. But once the factories went we lost all those, and with it that predictable holiday pattern.

"With the loss of Sunday, it's getting more and more difficult for families to arrange a holiday. The bank holiday is our last remnant of that culture where we could all go on holiday together."

Strange agrees: "The fashion today is for choice, but there are good things about our bank holidays. They remind us where we came from."

But will politicians agree with the historians? And more to the point, does the nation? It could be too close to call.

In a web-poll of over 4,000 Britons, less than half (43%) would like the May Day bank holiday left as it is. A third (36%) supported replacing it with a Trafalgar Day in October, while a fifth (18%) supported replacing it with a St George's Day public holiday in April.

Enjoy yourself this May Day. It may be one of your last.