bank holidays

Yesterday was August Bank Holiday in England. This is a fine holiday with many well-loved traditions, such as inching along on the motorway (AmE = highway, expressway, and various regional things like thruway and turnpike) while colo(u)rfully cursing, getting rained on at the beach, withstanding your in-laws, and standing in a long queue (AmE = line) at a DIY superstore then going home to decorate (which usually means painting).

The term Bank Holiday is pretty much equivalent to AmE legal holiday or public holiday. The US and UK have a couple of holidays in common--Christmas and New Year's Day. In the US, public holidays celebrate famous figures (Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents' Day), events (Thanksgiving) or issues/groups of people (Labor Day, Memorial Day, Veterans' Day). Which holidays are public holidays varies by state. For example, Massachusetts has an extra one called Patriots' Day--which, I might add, is to commemorate the battles of Lexington and Concord in the (AmE) Revolutionary War/ (BrE) American War of Independence, not the New England Patriots (American) football team. Click here for a site that tells you when US federal holidays and traditional secular observances take place.

In the UK, holidays generally allow for days off around Christian feasts (Christmas, Good Friday, Easter Monday, Boxing Day--which I've now discussed here) or celebrate the fact that the banks are closed (May Bank Holiday, Spring Bank Holiday [also in May], and August (aka Summer) Bank Holiday). August Bank Holiday is timed to co-occur with the dampening of the weather as hurricane season gets started in the Atlantic. Dates of holidays in the four nations of the UK can be found here,

England has the fewest public holidays in Europe, fewer than Scotland and fewer than the US as well. I practice my own "go-slow" on Columbus Day and Martin Luther King Day, and get downright rude at work on Thanksgiving. I don't do this because I'm patriotic--I just feel I'm owed a few more holidays. Only the May bank holidays fall during the university term, but they fall during exam time, and they don't close the university as there are too many exams to fit into the exam period.

So, I'm absolutely in favo(u)r of more bank holidays, but I would like to campaign to give them better and more diverse names. If the British can't think of things to celebrate, then at least the holidays could be named after other holiday traditions besides the closing of the banks. How about Trains on a Reduced Schedule Monday or Don't even think about driving on the M6 Day?

What British holidays would you like added to the roster?


  1. The UK is (perhaps) as united as the US states on this topic, as Monday was a bank holiday only in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

    In Scotland we had the Summer Bank Holiday on August 7. This has the advantage of keeping the roads clearer for the tourists during late August.

  2. Hi Paul--

    I heard from your other half that you were a regular visitor here--welcome! Yes, you're right about the August bank holidays. Thanks for the clarification. I tend to treat the first Monday in August as a holiday in solidarity with the Scots. At least I'll call it solidarity instead of sloth--which, by the way is pronounced differently in AmE, where it usually (and in my dialect) has the same vowel as moth, and BrE, where it has the same vowel as both. The New Oxford Dictionary of English gives just the 'long' /o/ pronunciation, while the American Heritage Dictionary (4th edn) has three pronunciations for it, rhyming with (in order of AHD's preference): moth, both and the AmE pronunciation of goth, which is really hard to describe for BrE. The comments box doesn't seem to allow for unicode, so I can't put this into International Phonetic Alphabet, so it will have to suffice to say that goth in the US is usually pronounced with an 'ah'-like vowel.

  3. I would like an autumn holiday. I don't care what it's called or if it's named after anyone or what, but there needs to be something between the August bank hol and Christmas! It's 4 months - and they're usually pretty rainy grey months over here, don't you think? - and it's JUST TOO DEPRESSING to go to work every day with no break. Grr! And it shouldn't be on a Monday, this new bank holiday, because (i've just realised) when i go part-time this October, i'll have Mondays off, so none of the bank-holidays will affect me. That's really annoying. I'm going to change my day off. Grr again.

    P.S. i have always pronounced 'sloth' to rhyme with 'moth', by the way, and i'm British. Maybe i'm just weird.

  4. Oooh, i've just thought (having calmed down a little): they should make the Fifth of November a bank hol. Yes. (That's Guy Fawkes night/ Bonfire Night/ Fireworks Night, of course.) That would be excellent. Also, it would mean it wasn't always on a Monday!

  5. A lot of Catholics would be quite opposed to a Guy Fawkes holiday, though.

  6. With regard to using a phonetic alphabet to represent pronunciation in comment boxes, Lynne, how would it be if we used the SAMPA system, described in
    and elsewhere? It doesnt use special characters.

  7. How about October 21st Trafalgar Day??

    Guy Fawkes Day November 5th is a great idea too.

    Maybe Autumn Equinox Day September 23rd to brighten up the autumn.

    We need to break up that long autumn/ winter period.

  8. It IS too bad there isn't the equivalent of Thanksgiving here in Britain. It will always be my favoUrite holiday. It's truly about family & friends & food & football...and taking a day out to think about life's blessings. Christmas has become too commercial. Thanksgiving hasn't lost its charm.

    Perhaps in ALL of the UK there could be some sort of equivalent celebration? Is there any natural "excuse" for such a day off?


  9. Howard: Thanks for the link. I can't say I'm crazy about SAMPA--but it works. The biggest problem is describing sounds like SAMPA /A/ (the sound in AmE pot and goth) to people who don't have the sound in their own dialect. If you have a little phonetic training, you can use the IPA or SAMPA to feel around in your mouth for the sound, but if you don't, it doesn't help a lot.

    Jas: Trafalgar Day is a good suggestion. Also why not have St George's day off? The Scottish and Irish take their saints' days off.

    Janet: There is a traditional Thanksgiving Sunday in many Christian churches (which mostly involves giving money to the church), but that's not the same as our Thanksgiving, of course, and you don't get the day off if it falls on Sunday! I've instituted Thanksgiving here among my friends and they love it. We have a ritual of going around the table before each course and talking about something we're thankful for. Unfortunately, we don't get the day off to do it, so we either end up at a restaurant, or have to wait for the weekend to have a proper meal. So, agreed that some thank-y tradition would be lovely --but you need a day off for it! :)

  10. Trafalgar Day would upset the Europhiles. Good idea! I'm all in favour of it!

  11. The Fifth of November is mostly pretty secularised now, isn't it? It could be re-branded... Y'know, Parkin Day, or The Cinder Toffee Holiday, or something. And you could burn an effigy of, erm, somebody else on the bonfire. OK, maybe not. I stand by the autumn thing though: it's really a long stretch with no day off.

  12. It's mostly seculari{s/z}ed, but I do know Catholics in my area who won't go anywhere near Bonfire Night celebrations.

    For those of you who haven't experienced it, Bonfire Night in Lewes, East Sussex is rated as one of the best. I just recommend that you get there really, really early. For Americans: it's kind of like Mardi Gras in spirit, but with lots and lots of fire and no flashing of body parts.

  13. We definitely need more bank holidays. Gah.

  14. Saw a bumpersticker advertising this site today, where they are campaigning (I'm unsure how, apart from merchandising) for St George's Day to be made a bank holiday.

    Believing as I do (good American) in separation of Church and State, I'd recommend celebrating this day as Shakespeare Day instead. Shakespeare's done more for England than George did (and at least Shakespeare was English!). He died on St George's Day (23 April) and is said to have been born on 23 April too (though that's just guesswork). It's definitely worth having a day off for Shakespeare.

    And while we're at it, let's have one off for Brunel and Johnson and Darwin too. And Newton. Let's have a day off for the Magna Carta.

    Someone should put me in charge of this holiday thing.

  15. "...(AmE = highway, expressway, and various regional things like thruway and turnpike)..."

    I would probably use "highway" or "freeway" (or perhaps "interstate", though it has a more limited meaning, of course). [AmE, mostly western and midwestern.]

  16. Colleagues here describe 5 November (Guy Fawkes' day) as having been secularised, yet I don't think it has ever been a religious holiday (though having religious significance). Attempts to have Fawkes canonised have come to nought.

    Just as Scotland differs from England in its public holidays (not least with its two days for new year), so Northern Ireland, because of its mixed traditions, has a nationalist (republican) and a loyalist (pro-UK) holiday.

    The Welsh are pretty cross that their St David doesn't warrant a day off, but then neither does St George in England. Some commonwealth countries celebrate the queen's official birthday but not we.

    The old May bank-holiday used to move around with the church-calendar and be the day after Pentecost, aka Whitsun. Now it's calculated with the secular calendar and has been joined by another such day-off at the start of the month.

    There have been one-off bank-holidays to celebrate royal events. The days between Christmas and new year can be as quiet as bank-holidays, when the British imitate the French habit of faire le pont between nearly-contiguous public hols.

    I would personally advocate the Roman convention of alternate days off and, indeed, have worked with colleagues who appear to practise that custom.

    Because of its chapel-protestant tradition, Wales used to be very strict in enforcing the ban on Sunday-trading. Back in those days, an Englishman went skydiving but his parachute failed and he was left dangling in a tree. A Welshman came by, noticed his plight, and said: "Didn't you know that nothing opens in Wales on a Sunday?"

  17. Lynne, although there has long been talk about it, up here in Scotland we do NOT get Saint Andrew's Day as a holiday. Personally I'd rather celebrate Bannockburn Day anyway, but I don't actually know when it is so I guess I don't care about it very much.

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  19. I'm in the US, and I think we need to do some holiday work as well. Mainly, we should not celebrate Columbus Day. I think everyone knows why. We could always celebrate Leif Ericson Day (October 9) instead, as it is similar and more acceptable, and very close to the same date. And it's already a federal holiday, but isn't observed.

    I think my issue here is the lack of consistency. More than half of the months of the year have a major holiday. Why not just stick one in every month?

  20. As Paul Danon states, the Spring Bank Holiday was originally a religious holiday (Whitsuntide) whose date was linked to that of Easter. A few decades ago it was changed to a fixed date.
    "Gunpowder Treason Day" may not have been a religious holiday but it was originally a formal day of thanksgiving for the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot.

    Kate (Derby, UK)

  21. In Scotland, they make up their bank holidays. Seriously. I turned up at Tesco at 8.30am one Monday morning randomly in November and it was shut. There were people hanging around so I waited and it did open at 9am. But everywhere else was shut. So I went into college the next day and asked what the day was. And my Scottish colleagues told me that it was a local holiday that the council just decides to have every year. Maybe you should start petitioning your council for a new local holiday?

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  23. The August Bank Holiday was the first Monday in August until some time in the 1960s. I was born on August Bank Holiday – 2 August 1954. Like many of the British holidays it's ultimately tied up with the agricultural year, with ABH coinciding with Lammastide, the first harvest.

    England had even fewer public holidays until the 1970s; New Year's Day and May Day were only introduced then. New Year's Day was always a bigger deal in Calvinist Scotland where the Feast of the Nativity was given less weight, and in practice the further north you went in England the more riotously the New Year was seen in with the consequent bad heads and reduced industrial activity the (working) morning after.

    For those not tied to the education system, though, the British get more annual leave to take when they want. I was quite shocked to see how few vacation days American employees are entitled to.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)