Taiwan: Let religious holidays be personal

By Shih Chao-hui, Taipei Times, Nov 29, 2005

Taipei, Taiwan -- On Nov. 25 at the Presidential Office, President Chen Shui-bian conferred the Order of Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon to Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, archivist and librarian of the Holy Roman Church in Vatican City, in recognition of his contributions to the promotion of understanding and friendship between the Vatican and Taiwan.

Citing the large number of Catholics in Taiwan, and a desire to bring Taiwan in line with many other countries around the world, Chen promised Tauran that he would consider making Christmas Day, which is the same day as Constitution Day in Taiwan, a national holiday. Once Chen's proclamation of a national holiday takes effect, everyone in Taiwan will be given one extra annual national holiday.

We are certainly delighted that Christmas Day should be made a holiday, but we hope that it will not be done under the guise of a holiday for Constitution Day, as it was for 40 years. No other country celebrates the promulgation of their constitution with a national holiday. Moreover, the Constitution of the Republic of China has long since been ignored by the public. It is not only a thorn in the Chinese Communist Party's side, but is also objectionable to the Democratic Progressive Party and Taiwan Solidarity Union. If the DPP government proposes a bill to make Christmas Day a national holiday in the name of Constitution Day, it will be regarded as hypocritical.

But I also hope that the nativity of Buddha, the eighth day of the fourth lunar month, will be made a national holiday.

First, the number of Buddhist followers in Taiwan is relatively large compared with the number of Christians. Christians only constitute 3 percent of Taiwan's population, while the population of Buddhists and others who incorporate Buddhism in their religious practice is estimated to exceed 30 percent of Taiwan's population. Therefore, making Buddha's birthday a national holiday is more reasonable than making Christmas Day a holiday. Besides, the population worshipping Taiwanese folk gods and goddesses, such as Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy, Matsu or the Goddess of the Sea and patron saint of Chinese fishermen, Guan Gong or the God of War and Righteousness, Wang Yeh or the Lord of Pestilence, and others in Taiwan is even larger. Based on the principle of numerical advantage, all the celebrations of different folk religions should be made national holidays.

Second, this would be in line with practice in other nations. Many countries in East and Southeast Asia, as well as Malaysia, where Islam is the state religion, have made Buddha's nativity a national holiday, based on religious equality. Therefore, in the DPP administration's drive to keep pace with the rest of the world, it should not look to Western nations more than Eastern ones, or it will fail to reflect the wishes of a majority of people.

People can understand that because some Christian groups of singers and musicians have to play and sing carols on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day must be a holiday, to allow for physical recuperation. But such a need for recuperation also applies to other religious followers. Failing to give other religious followers a day off on their own holidays will make them feel inconvenienced. As a result, it is necessary for Buddha's birthday to be celebrated either before or after the actual day.

Today, Buddhist temples that insist on holding Buddha's nativity celebration on the proper day are only able to attract elderly people and housewives. As a result, Buddhism has acquired an image of being a religion followed mostly by the elderly, which has led many to criticize it. What these commentators do not know is that younger people cannot participate in the celebration because they are at school or at work.

For Matsu's nativity celebration, many people have to take time off work to participate in the celebrations. But now they may be given a holiday on Christmas, when they have nothing to do.

That doesn't make much sense. Therefore, in the spirit of religious equality under the Constitution, I suggest that rather than making Christmas Day the sole religious national holiday, the government should instead propose a more flexible strategy of legislating "religious holidays." Each Taiwanese should be given the right to choose one religious holiday per year according to his or her preference. In this way, people can make good use of their designated day to observe a holiday. The government would take care of Christians by giving them a holiday on Christmas Day, and also ensure fairness and justice. This would avoid favoring one religion at the expense of others or placing too great a burden on the business community by making the nativity celebrations of all religions national holidays.

Shih Chao-hui is a professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Hsuan Chuang University.