Australia shuts down tomorrow for Good Friday. Shops and offices will be closed, most sport will go missing, public transport will run infrequently if at all. For official inactivity, Christmas day is its only rival.

Yet Christmas in Australia has been largely secularised: non-believers happily put up trees, hold Christmas parties, send cards, and partake in many other holiday rituals. Good Friday, by contrast, has essentially no secular component. It only makes sense as a specifically Christian religious commemoration.

We do celebrate Easter in a secular fashion, with eggs, chocolate rabbits and so on, but the time for that is Easter Sunday, which comes with its own public holiday the following day. “Celebrating” Good Friday would be inappropriate in religious as well as secular terms — although that didn’t stop The Australian last year headlining a Good Friday report with “Aussie Christians celebrate Easter”. Theology is not our strong point.

Each year, religious figures find something to criticise as “desecration” of the day. This year it was Tabcorp opening for business; a couple of years ago it was a plan to play an evening football game. But what’s remarkable is how little of this sort of thing there is.

Other public holidays — Australia Day, Queen’s Birthday, Labour Day, even Anzac Day — seem to cope with far more social activity than Good Friday.

Of course, everyone likes a holiday. But even as a holiday Good Friday is less than satisfactory due to the way it moves around the calendar, dictated by centuries-old astronomical calculations that different Christian denominations cannot even agree upon.

It’s interesting to compare with the United States, by most measures a much more religious country. There Good Friday is observed in most states, but it is not a federal holiday and most businesses stay open. Easter Monday is unheard of. One of many indications, perhaps, that American religiosity has very little to do with traditional religious belief.

But what of our own supposedly secular, multicultural society? Maybe our very lack of interest in religion makes us ignore its historical meaning and just accept the extra holiday with good grace. But the exaggerated respect that we give Good Friday seems out of step with anything that could be called Australian values.

Peter Fray

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