I got up ridiculously early this morning, took a walk in the growing warm air (It’s going to be 94 today), then came home to start working on dinner: a hearty beef stew that I make exactly once a year. Granted, 94 degrees is not exactly beef stew weather. But thermostat be damned, it’s Labor Day and this is what we do.
I wasn’t raised with a lot of traditions. We celebrated Christmas, but I was an only child, and I didn’t have enough leverage to convince my mom to go in for decorating with bunnies and witches. When I started having kids I was determined that I would do things differently.
Early on, Mike and I sat down and started thinking about all those “extra” holidays and what they actually mean. It turns out that Memorial Day is not just the day the pool opens! And Labor Day has nothing to do with sales and cookouts. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of holidays we ignore: Columbus Day and President’s Day and a bunch others whose sole purpose is to irritate me when I discover that both the bank and the wine store are closed. But Labor Day… oh no, it’s there in the top 4.
And shouldn’t it be? When else do we celebrate the millions of regular folks who get up every morning and go out into the world to provide a life for their families and keep our country running? When else do we celebrate the incredible power that a group of ordinary people wield when they stand together to make things better? It’s easy to forget that Labor Day was brought about by people who fought, who were required to fight, just so that they could be paid for their work; required to fight for working conditions that at least allowed the possibility of reaching your 30th birthday alive and unmaimed; required to fight for the right to use the bathroom without losing your job. Labor Day had been around for years when it was declared a national holiday in 1894 by President Cleveland. Why? Well, he was trying to break up a railroad strike. So, in other words, regular workers created a national holiday. As a side note, Labor Day was far from a victory march: In 1894 the average factory worker put in 100 hours a week. Without benefits. Without sick pay. Without LUNCH. People fought, people sat in jail, people DIED to change those things.
So we celebrate those people at my house. We make beef stew and homemade apple pie because it’s delicious, and also: America. The smell carries through the house all day while we decorate for fall (my mom was right about the bunnies, but pumpkins ROCK) and listen to songs from Pete Seeger, and Bruce Springsteen; Ani Difranco and Utah Phillips; Wilco and Billy Bragg; Michelle Shocked and anyone else who sings about fighting hard for what’s right and what’s fair. We tell stories about Mother Jones and the kids put on impromptu strikes – marching around with signs that read “LATER BEDTIMES, HIGHER WAGES (there was initially some confusion about this, Grey thought the chant was “Higher Wedgies”), MORE DESSERT!” We tuck the littles in with a rousing read of Click Clack Moo, Cows That Type (a delightful tale of unionization among farm animals) and settle down to adult talk with whomever we’ve invited over.
Most of the time, our dinner guests do not share our political views. That’s ok. We’ve let them know what they’re in for by inviting them to “A Dinner Celebrating Socialist Indoctrination Day.” We can laugh at ourselves. But we don’t laugh at each other. We simply eat great stew, listen to great music, have great conversations and feel extremely, well, grateful that we have this extra time together to celebrate all the different work we do and all the work that has been done on our behalf.