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Pancakes, festivals and religious holidays

Throw a sock in any direction and you hit another religious group celebrating something … Rather a nice thing to do, especially at this grey old time of year.

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, better known to many as Pancake Day. The old English verb “shrive” means to obtain absolution for one's sins by way of Confession and doing penance. “Shrove” is the past tense of shrive (lovely words aren’t they?) and Shrove Tuesday gets its name from the custom for Christians to be "shriven" before the start of Lent. Shrovetide used to be a three day festival, originally beginning on Sunday, and culminating in large feasts on Tuesday night. Probably as well for all our arteries and waistlines that it’s now reduced to one day.

The feast (literally) of Shrove Tuesday originated during the Middle Ages. Lent placed an obligation on Christians to fast and contemplate their sins, so food items like meats, fats, eggs, milk, and fish were considered to be inappropriate during Lent and restricted. To avoid food waste, many families would have big feasts on Shrove Tuesday to eat up all those items that would otherwise be spoiled during the next 47 days. Our tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday came about as a way of using up as much milk, fat and eggs as possible before Ash Wednesday began.

Other Christian countries followed the same process, for example, France. There the consumption of all fats and fatty foods on this day became known as "Fat Tuesday" or Mardi Gras.

At the end of it all we have the great Christian celebration of Easter, which incorporates the pagan symbolism of eggs.

Which brings us to the subject of time off for religious festivals and holidays. Employees with religious beliefs may well ask for time off to observe a religious festival. There is no absolute right to take time off in these circumstances and you are not required to grant all requests for leave for religious observance. Where an employee wants to take holiday for reasons relating to religion or belief, deal with the request in the same way as you would with any other request. Remember that employees have to request holidays, giving a minimum period of notice and cannot take the time off unless agreed with you.

A refusal to grant leave because of an employee’s religion will be discriminatory, so if you have to refuse, be prepared to objectively justify your decision for reasons which are not related to religion or belief. For example, a situation where you run a small business and the rule is one person on holiday at a time because you can only realistically accommodate one person’s absence before the operation is adversely affected. You should be able to prove this on the facts. If you can’t do this, you may face a discrimination claim.

If you have any queries about holidays or any other HR issues, get in touch.

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