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What Is Labor Day? History and Meaning

Labor Day is different than other holidays around the world. It isn’t associated with a religious observance in the way that Christmas, Passover, or Ramadan are. Nor does it commemorate an important day in history in the way that Cinco de Mayo does for Mexico or Bastille Day does for France. And though people do fun things on Labor Day, the holiday itself isn’t known for any specific traditions like giving gifts on Christmas or setting off fireworks for the New Year. All of this raises an interesting question: what is Labor Day exactly, and why do we celebrate it? 

What Is Labor Day? 

For those living in the United States, the first Monday in September, Labor Day, is undoubtedly a highlight of the year—a three-day weekend marking the end of summer and the beginning of a new school year. Often, the weather is perfect—not too hot and not too cold—and it’s a great day to be outdoors with family, flip burgers on the barbecue, and maybe even light a firework or two once the sun goes down. 

Picnics and barbecues are popular ways to celebrate Labor Day

At the same time, something about the day is bittersweet. June is long gone. July and August, too. Summer is over, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. Perhaps it’s this small sense of loss, of long days coming to a close, that makes Labor Day so important. If summer wasn’t everything you wanted it to be, you have one last day to make up for it! 

Of course, none of the emotions described here have anything to do with the origin of Labor Day in the United States or other countries of the world. The people who suggested it, advocated for it, and signed it into law probably weren’t that concerned with summer vacations ending or kids going back to school. Instead, they were looking for an opportunity to celebrate working class Americans—men and women who spent long days in factories, train yards, mines, and mills earning a living for their families. Labor Day was intended as a day of rest and relaxation for people who hardly ever had time for either. 

How Did Labor Day Start in the U.S.? 

Workers went on labor strikes and riots to demand better pay and humane working conditions.

To better understand Labor Day’s place in history, consider for a moment what life for most people was like in the mid- to late 1800s, especially in the cities, where the Industrial Revolution had transformed the jobs and day-to-day activities of millions of people. In places like New York and Chicago, men and women—and in many cases small children—could be expected to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, with only short breaks for lunch and other meals. The word “weekend” hadn’t been invented yet, and “vacation” referred to a few spare minutes at home—as opposed to time away from home. 

Workers in factories, train yards, mines, and mills worked hard to earn a living for their families.

Work conditions weren’t just unsafe, they were often downright treacherous. If someone got hurt, a replacement wasn’t hard to find.   

As is often the case, change didn’t happen overnight, nor did it come easily. During this period, labor strikes and riots were an all-too-common occurrence. Workers demanded not just better pay but more humane working conditions. By today’s standards, their requests seem more than reasonable, but at the time, they were unprecedented. The act that was passed by the United States Congress on 28 June 1894, making Labor Day a legal holiday, was evidence that their voices were being heard. 

Labor Day around the World 

In most countries, Labor Day is known officially as International Workers’ Day. It isn’t in September, though. It’s on May 1, which is why it’s also referred to, in many instances, as May Day. This includes countries in Africa, Europe, South America, Asia, the Middle East, and Oceania. 

As it turns out, taking time to honor the contributions of workers is a tradition that people of nearly all cultures, countries, faiths, and heritages have in common. And so is the way that people celebrate the holiday, which almost always includes a picnic or other meal with loved ones, usually outside in the sun. 

Of course, spending time with family is an important part of almost every holiday. But in this case, it seems more than fitting, considering that family is one of the primary reasons most of us go to work each day—to provide the necessities of life for those we love! 

This Labor Day, discover what your ancestors did for a living.

Discover Your Ancestors’ Occupation This Labor Day 

Learning your ancestors’ occupations can be a thrilling discovery, especially on Labor Day. Did your ancestors have the same interests as you? The same talents and abilities? Maybe an ancestor’s job was something difficult that you, yourself, would never want to do, but your ancestor did it anyway to support his or her family. Learning about what your ancestors did for a living can be an inspiring experience. 

At FamilySearch, there’s a good chance you can find out what some of your ancestors’ occupations were. FamilySearch provides access to millions of historical records from around the world, many of which may offer clues to your ancestors’ occupations. If you’re new to searching, don’t worry—we have lots of help to walk you through the process. 

This Labor Day, celebrate the contributions of workers in your family tree by discovering your ancestors’ occupations

Source: Family Search

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