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Of holy days and holidays

By Bridget Brereton

We've just had two long weekends and three public holidays: Spiritual Baptist Liberation Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday. This has prompted some discussion about holidays in the press.

In an interesting article in the Express last week, Robin Montano wrote about this issue. Among other points, he addressed Corpus Christi, which celebrates the Eucharist (Mass), and is important mainly, if not exclusively, to Roman Catholics.

Mr Montano thinks that we have retained this Catholic feast day as a public holiday because of our history. And he is perfectly correct. He was indulging in a bit of myth-making, though, when he wrote that Trinidad's French (Catholic) planters "had inserted into the Treaty of Amiens that…Corpus Christi would be a holiday in the colony from that day on".

Now this Treaty, concluded early in 1802, was a major international agreement between European powers which had been at war, especially Britain, France and Spain. A few French planters in a rather obscure Caribbean island, which had recently been captured by Britain, could hardly have "inserted" anything in such a treaty. Nor would Britain, France or Spain have cared one way or another about the issue.

In fact, the Treaty of Amiens—by which Trinidad was formally ceded by Spain to Britain, and Tobago was "returned" by Britain to France—makes absolutely no mention of Corpus Christi or any other religious festival in Trinidad.

The argument that Corpus Christi was guaranteed for all time as a public holiday is more often made in reference, not to the Treaty of Amiens, but to the Articles of Capitulation (capitulation means surrender). This agreement was made in February 1797 between the Spanish governor and the British commanders after the latter had successfully "taken" Trinidad.

In another recent article, also in the Express, Louis Homer makes this argument, but about Good Friday, not Corpus Christi. He writes that "historians" and "theologians" believe that "it was agreed that Good Friday will always remain a public holiday in keeping with the terms of the Capitulation treaty".

Sadly, this is another myth—though admittedly more plausible than the one about the Treaty of Amiens. The Articles of Capitulation—a document which has been examined by students for many years in various history courses at UWI—makes absolutely no mention of Good Friday, Corpus Christi, or any other holiday or holy day.

But it does include Clause 11, which states: "The free exercise of their religion is allowed to the inhabitants"; and this was indeed an important concession to the Catholic majority in the free population, especially those powerful French planters. Britain was a Protestant power, and in 1797 British Catholics, though no longer actually persecuted, didn't enjoy civil rights, were treated as second-class citizens, and generally viewed with some suspicion.

So Clause 11 was a guarantee to the Catholic landowners and slave owners—whose support the British needed if they were to keep hold of Trinidad in a time of war and revolution in the region—that Britain would not interfere with the exercise of their faith. It's a bit of a stretch to read this clause as guaranteeing Catholic holy days would always remain public holidays, even in an independent Trinidad and Tobago. But Mr Homer writes that the late Archbishop Anthony Pantin did make this claim, quoting him as saying "Good Friday was entrenched in a treaty that makes it mandatory to remain as a public holiday".

Perhaps he did say this, though I've only heard the argument with reference to Corpus Christi. Good Friday doesn't seem to require this rather dubious claim: along with Easter Sunday it's clearly the most important day in the Christian calendar, commemorating the events which lie at the core of the Christian faith. And Christians do form a majority of the national population, counting all the many denominations and varieties, all of which (as far as I know) recognise the Crucifixion and Resurrection as the heart of their creed.

Easter Monday is perhaps more vulnerable as a public holiday; it's become an entirely secular day. But there is the argument that Easter itself falls on a Sunday and so the public holiday must be on the following Monday. And this day is especially important to Tobago, it seems; any attempt to do away with it would be especially resented there.

I agree with Mr Montano that the argument for retaining Corpus Christi as a public holiday is far weaker. This is a holy day significant only to Catholics, it seems. It's been retained, not because of any treaty obligations—we've seen that there are none, and even if there were, they couldn't possibly apply to independent Trinidad and Tobago—but because historically the Catholic Church was the dominant religious body in colonial times. Even after Independence, its clout has ensured that Corpus Christi stayed while Whit Monday, a day of special significance to Pentecostals, was axed a few years ago.

We have far more public holidays relating to the Christian calendar than to that of any other faith. If any of the "Christian" holidays should go, in my view Corpus Christi should be the one.

• Bridget Brereton is Emerita Professor of History at UWI,

St Augustine, and has studied and written about the history of T&T, and the Caribbean, for many decades

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