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Reflecting on Holidays

With holiday season upon us Lyn French (A Space, Director) reflects on the theme of holidays, taking in social history, labour law and aspects of the slave trade as well as the emotional resonances stirred up by summer vacations. Examples given feature images from our most recent set of Emotional Learning Cards ‘How do we live well with others?’ and from ‘Who are you? Where are you going?’ now on sale in our store.

The month of August is traditionally associated with taking a summer break. We can easily get the impression that everyone is in the position to travel to the seaside or somewhere further afield to enjoy ‘down time’ with family or friends.  Whilst this may be true for some, it isn’t ‘a given’ for all. Managing the stories we tell ourselves about holidays is important.

Maybe we look back and remember childhood summers with a sense of yearning for the freedom and joy they represent, editing out the less enjoyable experiences. Or perhaps we recall disappointing holidays marred by gloomy weather when we were bored and felt as if ‘everyone else’ was having a better time, leaving us with the sense of being ‘left behind’ in life in general. As adults, we might fall into the trap of comparing our holiday plans with others and feeling under pressure to ensure we are doing ‘the right thing’ or organising the kind of break which will ‘land well’ with others. With social media often dominating our means of communication, competition and rivalry amongst peers and family members around who is lining up the most exciting, adventurous or ambitious vacation can set in.

The word ‘holiday’ has its origins in the old English for ‘holy day’. Time off used to focus on Saints Days or making pilgrimages to holy sites. Holidays, as we have come to know them, have different meanings and histories across cultures and countries. In the Western world, before the Industrial Revolution, holidays were not generally taken.  Most worked in agriculture which involved year-round responsibilities and only the rich were able to travel.  Once factories were opened, the ‘July Wakes’ came onto the calendar, giving workers unpaid leave to participate in religious festivals  and creating time for factory maintenance to be undertaken . This evolved into a more secular holiday, eventually becoming known as ‘trades week’ when tradesmen and factory workers took an annual break.  Linked to this was a long held belief in the health benefits of sea bathing and, in the UK, the expansion of railway networks allowing easy access to coastal towns, hence the tradition of a summer seaside vacation. However, summer leave was historically unpaid until social reformers active in the late 18th and 19th centuries lobbied for the introduction of Labour Laws. Holidays, therefore, reflect interlinking histories spanning religion, industrial development, class or social identities and workers’ rights.


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Godfried Donkor ‘Unbelievable’ (1994)

Godfried Donkor’s artwork ‘Unbelievable’ (above) includes a picture of a boxing ring which could remind us of leisure time and the kind of  holiday entertainment that might have dominated in some circles in the past. Perhaps more unsettling is the drawing just under it which is taken from the Irish writer, curate and surgeon, Robert Walsh, who wrote Notices of Brazil in 1828 and 1829 to contribute to his efforts to abolish the slave trade.  It is understood that Walsh’s illustration is based on what he experienced when his ship left Brazil in 1829, came across a slave ship on the open sea, chased it and captured it. Walsh boarded the ship and saw for himself the terrible conditions in which slaves were transported.  His drawing is reproduced in Donkor’s image. Walsh promoted courts of law being established in countries where there was already a British Consul so that slave traders could be tried and charged. Despite Walsh’s concentrated efforts, it took almost thirty more years to emancipate the slaves. This chapter in the history of human labour is a sobering one; it may even give us pause for thought about the conditions some employees currently work under in many tourist ‘hot spots’, servicing the needs of holiday makers for the minimum wage and under poor working conditions.

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Alex Flemming ‘Flying Carpet’ (2006)

Putting history aside, holidays also have powerful emotional resonances.  For some, holidays provide the only opportunity for seeing relatives in distant countries. Alex Flemming’s image entitled Flying Carpet (above) calls up many associations. One way of reading it is to see it as a reference to the fact that many of us may need to board a plane in order to make a link with our birth country or to see close family members. The patterned carpet may symbolise another culture while also conjuring up stories of magic carpets which can whisk us to our destination of choice. This, for some, may not be the seaside but instead, the city or town where their closest relatives live.


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Sudhir Patwardhan ‘Family Fiction’ (2010)

When we haven’t visited with relatives for some time, expectations can run high. Our memory may be selective, honing in on good times from the past and inflating the anticipatory excitement of renewed contact. However, families are complex ‘social organisations’ and we all have unconscious reactions, memories and wishes linked to those dearest to us.  Our easily expressed pride in an older sibling or cousin, for example, might mask more envious or rivalrous feelings. Or perhaps a favourite family member is in a relationship we feel uncomfortable with or can’t accept.  Sudhir Patwardhan’s Family Fiction (above) alludes to the layered histories we all have within our closest networks.  When on vacation, we may end up spending larger chunks of time with family than is the norm. This can cause tensions and put a strain on relations. Good intentions can give way to hurt feelings, misunderstandings, blocked communication and even conflicts breaking out.  Meeting everyone’s needs and wishes is never straightforward.  Managing our own expectations and keeping them ‘right sized’ can go a long way towards ensuring that we won’t be too disappointed when ‘life continues to happen’ even when on a longed for, and much looked forward to, holiday.

During the month of August our Emotional Learning Cards are on sale in our store available for worldwide shipping. You can browse them and buy here. Watch out for our autumn workshops, for more details visit ‘About Us’ or email jstarr@iniva.org for more information. 

Written by Jenny Starr