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Why Do We Have Weekends?

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Jan 22, 2022

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Image Credits: Getty, Unsplash/ Pratik Bhide For The Swaddle

Why do we only have two days in the weekend? Who decided this for us? How was it decided? Figuring out answers to these questions also means understanding what a week is. Our life is divided and organized around neat segments of seven days. But why, and since when?

The questions throw up some more philosophical ponderings. Time seems simultaneously limitless and finite. It is scientific and omnipresent, and yet, we imbue it with meaning that only makes sense to us — for instance, try explaining what a Sunday is to your cat, for whom every day is Sunday-like. All this to say: we have weekends, indeed, the week, month, and even the year, simply because time is socially constructed. This means that we invented rules about what time means, and what should happen in it.

“We made up the weekend the same way we made up the week. The Earth actually does rotate around the Sun once a year, taking about 365.25 days. The sun truly rises and sets over twenty-four hours. But the week is man-made, arbitrary, a substance not found in nature,” notes Katrina Onstad in Quartz

It is why the days of the week determine everything from how much time we spend with loved ones, at work to make a living, or with ourselves — doing the things we love. But as much agency as we seem to think we have, very little of this is actually within our control; when we speak of time, it is in the form of fixed currency. Why not just change what time means? Who is to say that a weekend consists of 48 hours only? Why does it need to be the “end” of a week and not somewhere in the “middle”? 

The historical version is that we get time off on Saturdays and Sundays because Emperor Constantine said so in 321 CE. And just like that, time went from being visualized as cyclical to linear. As a Roman emperor who converted to Christianity, Constantine turned the Babylonian week, consisting of eight days, into a seven-day week. Nothing really changed in the larger scheme of things because time isn’t a tangible resource. Except, everything changed as far as human beings were concerned. Sunday became designated as a day of rest, which meant other days necessarily involved work. 

Work and rest would never be the same again – especially come the Industrial Revolution in sixteenth century England, when clock-time was a ruler more powerful than monarchs and governments. It determined exactly how people lived their lives. It divided human time into work, family, and leisure, as historian E.P. Thompson explained. The other thing about this time was the rise of the factory – and with it, factory workers. 

Fast forward to the nineteenth century, when for the first time, the weekend was formally born. Why? Because of the factory workers. After centuries of toil and struggle, raising cities from the ground up, workers found themselves reaping few rewards for immense labor. Although Sundays were days of rest, an unofficial tradition called “St. Monday” came to mean recovery from Saturday night’s exploits, leading to much disgruntlement among manufacturers for the loss of “productivity.” Trade unions thus lobbied for a formalized system of leisure rather than have workers suffer loss of wages over these Mondays, and the “half-Saturday” was thus born. A whole industry of leisure cropped up in response, and the formal weekend was also a vehicle for educational pursuits for workers. 


Related on The Swaddle:

Has Work‑From‑Home Eliminated ‘Monday Blues’ Or Made Them Worse?


“Campaigns for an established weekend had begun in the 1840s but it did not gain widespread adoption for another 50 years,” the BBC noted. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the idea of a weekend for leisure even became mainstream in Europe. Across the pond, too, American workers grew disillusioned with how much of their time was dedicated to work. If time doesn’t really need to exist in this way, we can change it just as we invented it. And so: “free time was a defining political issue. The first instance of American workers rising up in unity wasn’t about child labor, or working conditions, or salaries — it was about shrinking long work hours,” Quartz noted. 

Henry Ford, the automobile mogul, formalized the five day work week – a move that aligned with trade union interests, but with a twist. His motive was that more leisure would lead to more consumption and more travel – so the same workers could buy the cars they made. “Ford, probably by accident, articulated a contradiction that sits at the heart of the weekend as we have come to know it: It’s both a time of rest and a time of consumption,” Onstad writes

Still, the power to adopt formal days for leisure lay with manufacturers. In other words, our right to rest was, and continues to be, determined by employers. The relationship between our time and work is inextricable. Indeed, the week itself turns fairly meaningless in the absence of work as a concept. Which is why, when India announced three-day work weeks, the response was critical.

A close reading of the labor codes tells a different story about what weekends can mean, one that isn’t very favorable to people’s overall well-being. The three-day weekend is arguably meant to placate; since people will now have to “earn” this time off through longer workdays. Twelve hours, to be exact. It also makes it less easy to protest, strike, or change what our time means to us any longer. As something that has been defined by the powerful for centuries, this is not surprising – but it does represent a backslide into history.

“Strikes have led to the institution of minimum wages, the weekend, and the 8 hour work day. Strikes terrify despotic employers & governments… This government is very clearly trying to make strikes unviable,” Jaai Vipra notes, in an article explaining the Codes.

The prospect of a three-day work week is as tempting as it is arbitrary, since the rules to define what the time-work relationship means still lies overwhelmingly with the industries and their authorities. Without the power to resist and take back ownership of time, it will overwhelmingly remain so.

When time, money, leisure and by extension, love and care, are as connected as they are, all except the last two are meanings randomly assigned by the powers that be. And while nobody can dictate whom we can truly love, but they can dictate how long we have with them. 

But a weekend doesn’t have to mean such a bleak thing. It represents the reclamation of time itself. If history is anything to learn from — we inherited our days from the very Sun, Moon and Gods. We can also take them back, and turn them into something that is better for all of us.

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Previously, she was a freelance writer and independent researcher working in the intersection of gender, social movements, and international relations. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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