It's Labor Day—the end of summer, the beginning of the school year (though now schools usually begin earlier), the time when the pennant races get interesting (will the Mets collapse yet again?), and the traditional kick-off for the presidential races (as you may have noticed, those now begin earlier as well). But, it may occur to you as you grill in your backyard or sit in traffic on the way back from the beach, why "Labor Day"?
Glad you asked. Even if most celebrants aren't thinking much about the meaning of the holiday they're enjoying, the holidays a nation celebrates tell you a lot about its history, its beliefs, even its way of life. So if you want to take a minute to reflect on the meaning of Labor Day, visit the American Calendar section of the excellent What So Proudly We Hail website, assembled by the late Amy Kass along with Leon Kass and Diana Schaub. There you will find collected documents and readings about each of the American holidays, along with a thoughtful commentary to guide you through them.
From the Labor Day section, I particularly recommend the 1924 Labor Day speech by Calvin Coolidge. Here are the first two paragraphs:
Labor Day is more entitled than any other to be called a national holiday. Other holidays had their origin in state legislative action. Labor Day had its origin in national legislative action. After Congress had taken the lead the states followed. It is moreover a peculiarly American holiday. It is a most characteristic representation of our ideals. No other country, I am told, makes a like observance. But in America this high tribute is paid in recognition of the worth and dignity of the men and women who toil.
You come here as representative Americans. You are true representatives. I cannot think of anything characteristically American that was not produced by toil. I cannot think of any American man or woman preeminent in the history of our Nation who did not reach their place through toil. I cannot think of anything that represents the American people as a whole so adequately as honest work. We perform different tasks, but the spirit is the same. We are proud of work and ashamed of idleness. With us there is no task which is menial, no service which is degrading. All work is ennobling and all workers are ennobled.
Read the whole thing.