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Labor Day — Twilight of the Holidays

Labor Day doesn’t have to explain itself. You work; you rest. Almost every other day off observed during my childhood has become a cultural chew toy for partisan ‘factioneering.’


Three cheers for Labor Day, one of the few remaining holidays we can celebrate more or less guilt-free.

Labor Day doesn’t have to explain itself. You work; you rest. (Young people have launched an under-the-radar, sloth-worshipping “rest as resistance/reparations” movement, but it doesn’t pay very well.) Labor Day is like an extra Sabbath in the calendar, and it seems almost unique. Almost every other day off observed during my childhood has become a cultural chew toy for partisan “factioneering.”

I call it the Twilight of the Holidays.

Thanksgiving? Are you kidding? The reckoning for the origin story of the Pilgrims and Native Americans breaking bread after the fall harvest is well over a decade old. Even though the tale of the communal meal shared by Pilgrim settlers and Wampanoag natives in 1621 appears to be true, the anecdote has been overshadowed in many people’s minds by the colonists’ subsequent seizure of lands, sometimes through dubious negotiations, sometimes by force.

Columbus Day, which I remember from my days in New York City as an innocent excuse for a parade, has been renamed Indigenous Peoples’ Day all over the country, starting in Berkeley, Calif., in 1992. Brookline, Newton, and other Massachusetts towns have since followed suit.


This July Fourth, many Americans chose to read and celebrate Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” rather than grill hot dogs and set off fireworks. Douglass’s stark answer to his rhetorical question: The Fourth is “a day that reveals to [the enslaved], more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

This year, Tishaura Jones became the first mayor of St. Louis to skip the city’s Fourth of July parade, long sponsored by a group with what The Washington Post called “a dubious racial record.” On Canada Day, on July 1, more than 50 churches were vandalized or set afire to protest the recent discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves on the property of schools for First Nations children, many of them church-run.


As for the jumped-up “War on Christmas,” why waste my breath?

I’d like to think I’m open to adopting new traditions, like the magnificent Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” or absorbing the importance of Juneteenth, the new federal holiday that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. I’m grateful to have been made aware of Frederick Douglass’s July Fourth speech. I’d love for it to be integrated into Fourth of July remembrances everywhere.

But I favor preserving the emotional equity in many of the holidays so casually tossed in history’s wastebasket. For instance, I find no reason to disdain Italian Americans’ impulse, more than a hundred years ago, to create a heroic remembrance of their own culture in Columbus Day. Perhaps Christopher Columbus now personifies the evils of European despoliation of the New World, but he was a bona fide explorer, too. If no one ever sails over the horizon, in real life or metaphorically, how can we discover what we don’t know?

It’s no surprise that Americans celebrate the end of the harvest around Thanksgiving, as almost all agrarian societies have done. Thanksgiving can be legitimately “decolonized,” and preserved.


Likewise Christmas, which I celebrate as a religious holiday, is just a repackaging of pagan festivals of light, held during the winter solstice, when the days finally become longer and sunnier. I’m not affected by how other people celebrate the winter solstice, and vice versa, I hope.

So God, or Yahweh, or the Great Breathmaker — whatever you call Her — bless Labor Day. Take a break. We’ll fight again on Tuesday.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.