Why is a fast celebrated in a secular society?

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Why is a fast celebrated in a secular society?

Does religion really influence current cultural actions? The history of a public holiday in Switzerland helps understand the link between religion and society.

In Switzerland, some regions have a public holiday during the month of September. This one-day holiday is called the Federal Fast or the Fast of Geneva. The majority of people living in these regions celebrate that day by eating a prune tart and not going to work or school.[1] However, most of them do not know why this day is a fast day.[2] How did a day of fast become a public holiday within five centuries? In a larger sense, how can remembering the religious element of a holiday help understand the holiday itself?

The history behind the Federal Fast and the Fast of Geneva

During the Reformation, a fast would be practised when events such as fires, plagues, and civil wars occurred. The fasting consisted of not eating for a day to be more disposed to prayer and understanding God through readings of the Bible. In the 17th century, this fast became a yearly practice for people from Geneva. The difference in names, Federal Fast or Fast of Geneva, appears in 1837 when the Swiss Federation joined all cantonal fasts in one ecumenical day. The canton of Geneva decided to keep their own fast as it is part of their reformed identity.[3]

The celebration of the fast in a secular society

Today, this public holiday is a resting day for most Swiss. However, in the political and religious domains, this day consists of acting in humility and solidarity towards those vulnerable in our current society.[4] For example, in the canton of Neuchatel, churches will collect funds for victims of the COVID-19 economic crisis.[5] In the canton of Vaud, the state counsellor, Christelle Luisier, will talk about solidarity before the ecumenical service.[6]

The influence of a religious moral value in today’s Swiss society

From the Reformation to today, the day of fast became a means to act in solidarity. Switzerland, mostly Geneva, is known for its international work through the United Nations. However, the Swiss moral value of solidarity did not appear with the creation of the UN. During the Reformation, Calvin already called protestants to live in humility to remember the gift of grace.[7] This moral value of humility influenced political decisions in Switzerland as politicians were in close relation with the Church. Later, the value of humility in politics was translated into acts of solidarity. These actions, through international aid, built the Swiss moral value of solidarity. Two examples from the Reformed moral value highlight Switzerland’s work on solidarity. In the 16th century, Switzerland was a place of refuge for protestants from France and Italy.[8] Then, Henry Dunand, a reformed man from the 19th century, created the Red Cross known for helping civilians during wars.[9]

In conclusion, knowledge of the history of this public holiday can help us to understand that the Swiss cultural norm of international aid is influenced by a religious concept. Through religious history, we can discover how religion is still entangled in today’s secular society.

Emma Van Dorp

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[1] Jeûne Genevois

[2] Jeûne genevois

[3] Le Jeûne Genevois-EPG

[4] Federal fast day

[5] Collecte du Jeûne fédéral

[6] Célébration du Jeûne fédéral 2021

[7] L’humilité de Calvin

[8] The Huguenot Refuge in Switzerland

[9] Création Croix-Rouge