The lofty language of the U.S. Department of Labor (today marks “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country”) doesn’t seem to fit reality. Labor Day isn’t acknowledgment; it’s escape—from work. That’s because words like holiday, prosperity, and well-being have lost their meaningful connection to reality.
The first Labor Day holiday was celebrated on Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City. It was to be a “workingmen’s holiday.” By 1894, 23 other states had adopted the holiday and on June 28 of that year, Congress passed an act making the first Monday in September of each year a legal holiday. The only problem was this took place at the same time that the original meaning of “holiday” was being hollowed out.
Holiday is a word derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The original celebration of work was called Sabbath and celebrated on Saturday. Sabbath means “cease,” not escape. “It does not refer to remedying exhaustion after a tiring week of work,” writes Allen Ross, an Old Testament scholar. “It describes the enjoyment of accomplishment, the celebration of completion.”1 Sabbath was a holy day, a holiday. Saturday was for stopping to look back at the week’s accomplishments and look forward to more opportunities the following week.
In a perfect world this sounds fine. In a fallen world it sounds like a fairy tale. The Eastern Orthodox tradition has continued to recognize this tension. It celebrates Holy Saturday as enjoyment and celebration but also recognizes the fall. Friday is suffering; Sunday is rebirth and justice. Saturday is for contemplating the connection between the two and the complexities of working out the faith in a fallen world. This tension, the celebration and sorrow of Holy Saturday, continues to enjoy a prominent place in the Eastern Orthodox tradition but hasn’t in the Western Christian tradition.2
In the West, as the first Labor Day holiday was gearing up, the ground beneath words like holiday, prosperity, and well-being was giving way. In scripture, well-being is working for the common good, prosperity for all. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville coined a new word to describe Americans—individualists. As Robert Bellah notes in his seminal book, Habits of the Heart, Tocqueville’s individualism redefined well-being as personal prosperity rather than the common good.
Concurrently, in 1859, Charles Darwin redefined what it means to be human. In short order, human beings were no longer understood as being designed in God’s image but as descended from animals. Animals are beasts of burden. They labor. Thus work became labor, or toil, drudgery. Holidays became escapes from work.
In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche declared God was dead. Life had no meaning or morality. Labor was reduced to merely markets and making money. The monotony of all this turned holidays into escape hatches. At the same time Sigmund Freud took Tocqueville’s individualist well-being a step further. Well-being wasn’t rooted in the theological but the therapeutic. The highest and best use of holidays, or every day, became “expressing myself.” It is no coincidence the “weekend” is a 19th century development. It came to mean escape from work and was expanded to include Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Individuals and institutions framing reality reframe the way the public understands reality. Perhaps the best example is what happened early in the 20th century with Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity (E=mc2). Originally describing physics, it became a philosophical maxim. “The belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, or knowledge, above all of value,” writes Philip Johnson in his magnificent opus, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties. “Mistakenly, perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.”3 This was not Einstein’s intent. But inside a reframed reality, Einstein’s theory “formed a knife,” writes Johnson, “inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of the Judeo-Christian culture.”4
The result is a holiday stripped of any essential meaning, other than taking a break from toil. Readers of the Bible recognize that the thrust of Lucifer’s work is to break the meaningful connection between words and reality. In Isaiah 14, we read God’s judgment against Lucifer: “You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’” Lucifer’s words had no meaningful connection with reality. Neither does Labor Day.
In a world where words like holiday, prosperity, and well-being have lost their meaningful connection to reality, the best place to begin reconnecting is reading those who never lost the connection. Theologian Alan E. Lewis reflected most extensively on the nature of life between Friday and Sunday. His book, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday, is a sustained meditation on the purpose of Saturday. It might be good Labor Day reading.
1 Allen Ross, Creation & Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), p. 114.
2 C.f., John Meyendorff, “The Time of Holy Saturday”, in Joseph J. Allen (ed.), Orthodox Synthesis: The Unity of Theological Thought (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981), pp. 51-63.
3 Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 4.
4 Johnson, Modern Times, p. 5.