T'was the night before Christmas, and all through the nation, not a creature was stirring because no one had vacation! On Wednesday, for the third consecutive year, citizens of Taiwan will rise early to go to work and try to forget that it was once a holiday they enjoyed.
"I used to pile the whole family in the car and drive to Yushan in the hopes of seeing snow," said Chang Chie-san (
Jolly old Chiang Kai-Shek
Although Christmas has never been an official holiday in Taiwan, it has been observed as Constitution Day since 1963, when the US maintained a large military presence on the island. The Yanks unsurprisingly wanted more of a holiday than the average night at Taipei's notorious "Combat Zone" could offer and nudged Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (
As anyone in Taiwan with a job is well aware, however, it hasn't been a day off work since the DPP government took power and initiated what would become a prolonged fiasco to implement a 40-hour work week. When the nascent DPP administration tried to initiate the change, they met with resistance from the industrial sector, which feared a decrease in productivity. The government capitulated and backtracked, ultimately advocating an 84-hour fortnight and a reduction in the number of public holidays, lest the economy go bad.
"The economy isn't exactly flourishing, is it? I'd rather be on my way to Yushan," Chang said. He is not alone. Lin Rung-sheng (
"We've always been open on Constitution Day. Most businesses used to close, but for others it was a big sales day." Before the change in policy, Lin's store did a brisk trade on the holiday, given the number of people who had the day off. "People have always taken advantage of the sales most stores have around Christmas," Lin said. "Some people are buying Christmas gifts for friends and family, yes, but most are buying things for Chinese New Year in the same way Americans take advantage of Thanksgiving sales to buy things for Christmas." "As far as the day off is concerned ... we get New Year's Day off the following week ... we can't have every day off ... the economy would go bad."
For others, concern over the defunct holiday goes far beyond economic reasons. Taiwan is home to large number of Christians, not the least of whom are the thousands of Filipino laborers and domestic workers who not only have to work on the holiest day of the year, but must do so thousands of kilometers from their families and loved ones.
Florence Chung is a member of Taipei's Holy Family Catholic Church. She's been in Taiwan 18 years and helps with the liturgy on Sundays and serves every day of the week as an unofficial counselor to new arrivals who are still adjusting. In that capacity, she's seen more than her fair share of forlorn foreigners.
"I think every Filipino I know would like to return home to be with their families on Christmas. I can't tell you how important a time of the year it is for us," she said. "You know, we have a tradition in the Philippines ... for nine days before Christmas, everyone gets up to meet at church at 4am for early, early Mass." For the very few who can make it back home, the financial strain is heavy. "A ticket back to the Philippines costs some NT$12,000, I think," Chung said. "That's a month's salary for many of us. If you're saving to go back for Christmas, you're not sending any money back home, and that's why most Filipinos come here." Even those that can afford it often cannot go, largely because it's no longer an observed holiday. "I think you can count on your fingers the number of employers who will let their domestic workers have a vacation," Chung said. "Some don't even let them come to Sunday mass! ... I only know of two people who are going back this year." Still, Chung said, there is a positive side to having to stay in Taiwan. "You don't have the extra burden of buying gifts for everyone back home," she said with a laugh. "Those that must stay also take comfort in our congregation. There is a strong feeling of family among us here -- brothers and sisters ... and some boyfriends and girlfriends."
Clearing the calendar
The time for anyone to protest the new holiday scheme hasn't passed -- at least not yet. The legislature approved the first reading of the Statue for Memorial Days and Holidays (
Interestingly, during the debate over which holidays to observe and which to eliminate, a motion was carried to make Buddha's birthday a day off for the nation. It was decided, though, that since neither Confucius nor Jesus were to have their birthdays celebrated, neither would Buddha. Jesus, one observer pointed out, was even born on Constitution Day -- if two reasons to have a holiday weren't enough, then surely Buddha should be honored in our hearts, not in our calendar. Among the other occasions the government would like Taiwanese to honor while continuing to work are Chiang Kai-shek's birthday and the anniversary of his death, days which were once marked off as dates on which the people should reflect solemnly on Chiang and country, rather than work.
Asked how he felt about not having Chiang's birthday as a holiday, Lee A-yu (
Lee has no room to complain, though. The Executive Yuan approved a bill in September that granted the nation's Aborigines a holiday of their own each year out of respect for their various tribal beliefs. The day will be in addition to an already established holiday, Aug. 1 or Aboriginal Day, commemorating the date in 1994 when all references to in the Constitution to the island's indigenous groups were changed from the pejorative shan bao (
"Maybe I and the rest of the Atayals will get together and decide to take off Christmas Day," Lee said. "We're all Presbyterians, anyway."
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