May 1st was Friday, a holiday known as May Day, or International Labor Day, an occasion which, in China, has always meant a week’s vacation, at least until now. Recently China has stepped up her efforts to celebrate more traditional, Chinese holidays, which means that this year instead of our big “Golden Week” of vacation, we have three smaller, three day weekend type holidays. The first of these was Qing Ming, the traditional tomb sweeping festival, the second May Day, and the third, several weeks from now, will be Duan Wu, the Dragon Boat festival. While I can appreciate the gesture, it seems to be too little too late at this point. In the cities most people don’t celebrate Qing Ming festival, especially since their ancestor’s gravesites are usually somewhere in the countryside, often far, far away. My husband’s parents are buried back in Yunnan and we’re in Beijing, so of course there was no grave sweeping for us. Qing Ming consisted of taking an extra few minutes at dinnertime to make an offering to his parents’ pictures, lighting some incense, and saying a few words for them. Celebrating it was important for my husband, but it hardly necessitated a day off of work. The other traditional festival, Duan Wu, or Dragon Boat Festival, is much more important in some parts of China than in others, but in modern times the main feature of this celebration is eating a special meal.
Most people I have talked to would rather, in all honesty, have their week of vacation back. China is apparently re-thinking this strategy as well, since cutting out the May Golden Week also means cutting out a lot of spending. The two Chinese Golden Weeks (the other is in October, and remains intact) were originally instituted in order to stimulate the economy, to encourage people to take to the road, to travel, and to spend money. Nothing gets people burning through their Maos faster than a week outside the office, away from home, eating out, taking trains and planes and busses, paying for overpriced souveniers, and living out of hotels. The government has started to realize that for 3 day weekends most people simply stay at home, since there really isn’t enough time to do anything important. My students also grumbled about the lack of a Golden Week, seeing as they’re at a boarding school, and a week’s vacation gives them a much needed opportunity to visit home. I’ve heard talk about reinstating the May Golden Week next year, but this is all rumor at this point.
So which is more important? Stimulating the economy, giving students a nice, long break (especially since come June, exam season starts and the students will be pulling massive all nighters with hardly enough time to breathe), or honoring the traditional holidays which, while today may only be celebrated in the most cursory of ways, still deserve recognition as being part of China’s cultural heritage? I don’t really know the answer. Selfishly, I want my Golden Week, but I admire China for bringing back the old holidays, especially since as few as 30 years ago the country seemed hell-bent on destroying them.
What public holidays does your country give? Traditional festivals, or modern holidays, or a mixture of both?