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Quirk of history

The real reason southern Europe takes August off

Holy Week in Málaga. Jesus Merida/SOPA Images/LightRocket/ Getty

This week, says Ed West on Substack, most of continental Europe will have enjoyed a bank holiday marking the feast of Assumption. Not that many workers will have noticed: most Europeans are off work for “extended vacations” taking up much of August. There’s a clear “difference in attitudes” between the work ethic in southern Europe, where a more relaxed and leisure-focused stance prevails, and that in America, Britain and Germany. And it’s all down to the Reformation. Countries that converted to Protestantism routinely work longer hours than Catholic ones; today, Germans put in approximately three to four hours a week more than their traditionally Catholic neighbours.

According to the historian Joseph Henrich, Protestants learned to “boil off their guilt” through their employment. Protestant countries are less inclined to impose limits on working time – mandating more vacation and shortening the work week, for example – because they see work as a “sacred value”. Over the second half of the 18th century in Britain, the work week lengthened by around 40%: people worked 30 minutes more a day, abandoned the Catholic tradition of taking “Saint Mondays” off, and started working some of the 46 holy days in the annual calendar. The upshot: by the start of the 19th century, Protestant England was working an extra 1,000 hours per year, or 19 hours a week.