Tuesday, August 30, 2005

From Rude Nature

When I was sixteen years old I took my father out for dinner on his birthday to a place called Ichabod’s, on Lake Ponchartrain in New Orleans. Or perhaps, after hurricane Katrina, I should say “on Lake Ponchartrain which now IS New Orleans.” At any rate, all I remember from that evening (other than his surprise when I actually picked up the tab) was that we ended up talking about the jobs he had had in his lifetime: boyhood jobs, part-time jobs, college jobs, summer jobs, first-jobs-out-of-college jobs, career jobs. Two things became clear during this conversation: First, he truly enjoyed working. And second, he was trying to tell me about himself by telling me about his jobs.

Labor Day was conceived in the late 19th century as a testament to the cause of America’s Labor unions. Labor leader Peter J. McGuire suggested a day to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 in New York City (I’m guessing there were no sales at the mall). In 1884 it was changed to the first Monday of September and labor unions in other cities were urged to follow New York’s example and celebrate a “workingmen’s holiday” on that date. [At the time, the Socialist Party held a similar celebration of the working class on May 1, which eventually became known as May Day and was celebrated by Socialists and Communists in commemoration of the working man. The first Monday in September was selected to reject any identification with Communism.] In 1894 Congress passed a law recognizing Labor Day as an official national holiday.

It is interesting how a national holiday can, over time, lose its moorings in the original purpose and drift into a new kind of significance. Partly because of the decline of labor unions as a national and political force, and partly because of other social factors such as consumerism and the availability of leisure time, Labor Day now functions mostly as “the last vacation day of summer” and the end of the “summer season.” Since autumn begins in September (temperatures drop into the low 90’s in Houston as the first cool front moves in), the Labor Day weekend serves a symbolic purpose as the “turning of the corner” into fall.

Listen, I enjoy barbecuing and having a day off as much as anyone, same as I do on Memorial Day, the “first vacation day of summer.” But each year I find myself trying to engage a little more with the original purpose of these days. Even a tiny gesture like flying the flag on Memorial Day and watching the President’ speech at Arlington National Cemetery adds much personal significance to the holiday. I don’t quite know what would be the equivalent on Labor Day (how ironic is it that the signature event of this weekend, the Labor Day Sale, requires workers to put in overtime!). But that’s why I’m preaching on “The Worth of Work” this Sunday. And that’s why I’ll try to summons an extra measure of gratitude this Monday as I take my day off and give thanks for the blessing of a job. And the blessing of a day off. – Matt Soper


Blogger Sarah Megan said...

I dont know why nobody comments on this---do you ask them not to? Well I go to West Houston and well, Im in college now and I read these to keep me on track. Thanks for doing something to reach out to everyone!

9:38 PM  

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