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What’s in a name? How civic holidays get theirs Add to ...

The August civic holiday is a mess.

Most provinces celebrate the first Monday in August as a holiday, whether mandatory or optional for employers, but the names are all over the map. It’s Natal Day in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, British Columbia Day in British Columbia and Heritage Day in Alberta.

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In Ontario, municipalities have named the day after individuals, be it John Graves Simcoe in Toronto, Colonel By in Ottawa, Joseph Brant in Burlington or George Hamilton (no, not the tanned Hollywood actor) in Hamilton. And there’s certainly something to be said for personifying the end of a long weekend (thanks, J.G.S., much obliged).

But let’s not be naive. Getting a statutory holiday named after you is not easy, and keeping it is even harder.

Queen Elizabeth II was born on April 21, but Canada’s official recognition of her birthday falls in late May on a day named after her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. Victoria Day retained that name in Canada after the queen’s death in 1901, even as the rest of the Commonwealth went with Empire Day. Similarly, Beatrix of the Netherlands, who abdicated earlier this year, was born on Jan. 31, but her holiday was held on April 30, the birth date of former queen Juliana.

And when Elizabeth did get her own day – a public holiday in Hong Kong – her name was expunged after Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997. The new name? The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day.

This wouldn’t happen in Japan, which ensures that each new emperor – currently Akihito – is honoured with a national holiday on his actual birthday. And it certainly wouldn’t happen in North Korea, where every beloved and exalted leader is blessed with a personal secular holiday, or two: Jan. 8 for current leader Kim Jong-un, Feb 16 and 17 for father Kim Jong-il, and April 15 and 16 for grandfather Kim Il-sung.

The tradition of naming days after individuals dates from the early centuries of organized religion, when every saint or spirit worthy of his or her feast day could count on a nod. (The word holiday comes from the Old English halig, holy.) Even now, you can’t stroll through the calendar without tripping over St. Patrick, St. George, St. David, and St. Valentine – and that’s without mentioning such powerhouse holidays as Christmas (literally, the mass of Christ), the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed (celebrated in most Muslim nations in the third month of the Islamic calendar) and the birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha (varying dates in May in South Korea, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, India and Indonesia).

The Christian datebook alone grew so unmanageable that, in 1642, Pope Urban VIII decreed that the number of obligatory holy days (other than Sundays) be reduced to 34, and informed his bishops that only the Holy See could create more. In 1911, Pius X further reduced the number to eight.

But from the earliest days it was rare to have a secular public holiday – the kind on which people were encouraged to take time off work – named after a person. You pretty much had to be Julius Caesar, who not only had a national holiday on his birthday but, in the course of overseeing the creation of the Julian calendar, named a month after himself (July).

And it was definitely rare to have a paid public holiday. Until the late 1800s in England, only two public holidays entitled workers to stay off work: Christmas and Good Friday. Legislation drafted in 1871 by British MP John Lubbock created four new holidays with pay: Easter Monday, Whit Monday, Bank Holiday (the first Monday in August) and Boxing Day. None were named after people, but workers in the 1880s were so delighted by Mr. Lubbock’s law that they referred to the August vacation as St. Lubbock’s Day. (Canada was slower off the mark. Boxing Day, for instance, wasn’t declared an official holiday until 1931.)

Mr. Lubbock called them bank holidays because, as paraphrased recently by The Daily Mail’s Christopher Stevens, “employers might ignore a vaguely named ‘general’ or ‘national’ holiday, but if the banks were closed then no business could be done. A day off would be inevitable.”

Canada has only a smattering of eponymous days. Even Victoria Day isn’t a statutory holiday everywhere in the country, and Quebec calls it National Patriots’ Day (or, less officially, Fête de Dollard, after 17th-century French fighter Adam Dollard des Ormeaux). Quebeckers also get a day off on June 24, St. Jean Baptiste Day or, more officially, the Fête nationale (national celebration). Manitoba celebrates Louis Riel Day on the third Monday in February as a statutory holiday in honour of the Métis leader.

To get a named day, it helps to have fought for the rights of the oppressed. In 1983, 15 years after his assassination, civil-rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., was honoured with a U.S. national holiday on the third Monday in January. India observes the birthday of its own champion of civil disobedience, Mahatma Gandhi, on Oct. 2. Mexico has a national holiday on the Monday before March 21 in honour of Benito Juarez, who fought for Mexican sovereignty in the 1800s. Thailand honours King Chulalongkorn (who ruled Siam from 1868 to 1910) on Oct. 23, Guadeloupe and Martinique honour Victor Schoelcher (who helped abolish slavery) on July 21, and Uruguay salutes national hero Jose Gervasio Artigas on June 19.

As with Elizabeth II, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln found a head of state’s honours can be fleeting. Lincoln’s birthday used to be widely celebrated in the United States on Feb. 12, but the decision was made to combine Lincoln’s birthday and Washington’s birthday (Feb. 22 by the Gregorian calendar, though he was born on Feb. 11 by the Julian calendar then in force in the colonies) into a single Presidents’ Day.

And whose birthday is it held on? George Washington’s (well, the third Monday in February). Lincoln must be steamed.

Courtesy of a proclamation by U.S. president Benjamin Harrison in 1892, Americans take a day off on the second Monday of October for Columbus Day, commemorating Christopher Columbus’s landing in the New World in 1492. On July 24, Venezuela and Ecuador commemorate the birthday of Simon Bolivar (born in Venezuela in 1783), the man who spurred the liberation of much of Latin America from the Spanish Empire. (Not that he needs that honour; he named an entire country after himself in 1825: Bolivia.)

Fortunately, they don’t use Bolivar’s full name: Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar Palacios y Blanco. That would require at least a two-day holiday.

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