On Holidays


by G.K. Chesterton

There are epochs of history which their enemies call rude and which their friends call simple. My difficulty is that they seem to me not simple, but subtle. They understood much better than we do the idea of variety and reaction. For them emancipation was a recoil and not merely a release. The world must be turned upside down at absolute intervals, as a bucket must be turned upside down in order to empty it. It is the essence of a holiday that it must be a revolution, and it is the essence of a revolution that it must revolve. A revolution far more frightful and overwhelming than any of the revolutions of history happens every twelve hours. We do, quite seriously, die daily. We trust ourselves in utter dark and dissolution; in such black sleep as has killed many men by a drug or by the drifting snow. Each of us has every night an enormous negative holiday. But most will agree, I think, that the essence of that holiday is its irresponsibility. The legal authorities would be kept busy if we could be indicted for the crimes we have committed in dreams. Now the whole point of a holiday was to be, within certain rational restraints, irresponsible. Interfering with a holiday was almost like interfering with a dream. And the whole project of using holidays as anything else but holidays was really absent from the mind. The notion of `combining amusement with instruction’ would have seemed like the notion of combining sleep with insomnia. Great spiritual authorities have told us to watch and pray. Great spiritual influences, I think, also tell us to believe and sleep. But neither god nor priest nor devil ever had the impudence to tell us to watch and sleep.

And that is the contradiction made by the modern cranks about holidays. It would be a typical and triumphant work of modern science to take charge of a child day and night; to give him the drugs that would keep him half asleep all day, and the dreams that would keep him half awake all night.

In this connection I think the educational arrangement about holidays has long been a ludicrous mistake. Holiday tasks are a mistake. Home-work is a mistake. Give the boy or girl less holidays if you think they need less. But be sufficiently businesslike to get the best out of the boy or girl for whatever concession you make to them. If you can excuse anyone from work, you can excuse him from worry. Leisure is a food, like sleep; liberty is a food, like sleep. Leisure is a matter of quality rather than quantity. Five minutes lasts longer when one cannot be disturbed than five hours when one may be disturbed. Restrict the liberty in point of time; restrict it in point of space; but do not restrict it in point of quality. If you give somebody only three seconds’ holiday – then, by all the remains of your ruined sense of honour, leave him alone for three seconds.

Let me take an example which involves a particular sort of holiday that is fairly popular and national. During the summer, the big railway stations will be found thronged with the bags and babies of innumerable families going to seaside resorts. Each traveller is (I need hardly say) murmuring to himself the lines of Swinburne:

“I will go down to the great white mother …
Mother and maker of men, the sea;
I will go down to her, I and none other . . .”

A friend of mine regards these lines as unreasonable, declaring that Swinburne, however much he liked sea-bathing, should not insist on all the seas of the world being locked up like his private bathroom. But certainly the request, whether reasonable or not, would be very difficult to enforce, say, at Margate or Broadstairs. But even if it be true, as I were loth to believe, that some holiday-makers do not murmur Swinburne’s lines as they start, I am still firmly convinced that most holiday-makers like the sea because it is some kind of outlook upon some kind of loneliness and liberty. It is the only kind of loneliness and liberty. It is the only plain, straight line in Nature. It is the only empty place on earth. It is the one open window; to Jones, as it was to Keats.

I think it was Richard Jefferies who said that all men ought to be idle; and that we should get all the work we wanted done by harnessing to our machinery the tremendous tides of the sea. Something analogous was suggested by Mr. Wells; but I disagree with it. I think it would destroy the holiday. We should have removed all the use of the seaside by removing the uselessness of the sea. Men jaded or dazed with duties wish to look out across that fruitless field, in which God has sown we know not what seed and shall raise we know not what harvest. They wish to behold how enormous is their irresponsibility. The sea blows upon the cashier at Margate the great good news that he is not God. But this holiday sentiment will continue to weaken so long as men try to make all our holidays duties, or all our days holidays; and cannot understand that when anything is being woven the shuttle flies back and forth.

First published in The Spice of Life and Other Essays, by G.K. Chesterton, 1964 

About the Author:

G.K. Chesterton (29 May 1874 – 14 June 1936), was an English writer.

Image by Dave Collier via Flickr (cc).