Zinsser on Friday

Peter McGuire's Holiday

By William Zinsser | September 2, 2011


United we crouch like sprinters on the eve of Labor Day weekend, ready to hurl ourselves into the three-day swirl of activities required of every good American, squeezing the last ounce of pleasure out of summer’s final gift of unexamined time. Officially, summer won’t end for another three weeks. But in our bones we know that the jig is up. The new year begins next Tuesday.

On that morning we will wake to an altered landscape. Store counters previously heaped with bikinis and beach balls and suntan creams will be stacked high with three-ring notebooks. No mother can gaze upon those notebooks without a sinking of the heart. They announce that a new school year has arrived and that unspeakable related chores can no longer be postponed.

Cleaning out the children’s closets. Yuck! Only the brave will wade into that midden of outgrown sneakers, torn T-shirts, broken flip-flops, and old issues of Rolling Stone. Once cleaned, those closets must be filled with back-to-school clothes. This is tricky terrain, as the shopping trip to the mall will soon reveal. Few areas of agreement exist between parent and adolescent on matters of age-appropriate wear.

Next come phone calls to the now-fully-booked dentist, orthodontist, and pediatrician. Then a mother turns to that other disaster area: the refrigerator. Gone is the season of the ad hoc meal, the cold cuts of July and August, the hastily assembled sandwich. It’s time once again for real meals and dietary balance. It doesn’t matter that the family has thrived for two months on food that a nutritionist might not call “food.” A cycle has clicked, loud as the click from “wash” to “rinse.” Out go the monster bags of potato chips, the giant jars of half-used mustard and ketchup and mayonnaise, the lemonade mix, the paper plates, the hot dog rolls with an encroaching patina of mold.

How did the nation get itself a holiday that holds such regulatory power over our lives? A day called Labor Day was first proposed in 1882 by Peter McGuire, general secretary of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. He felt that the country already had holidays to celebrate its religious, military, and civil traditions and that it needed one that was “representative of the industrial spirit—the great vital force of every nation.” He suggested the first Monday of September because it fell roughly halfway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. Twenty-three states gradually enacted the idea into law, and in 1894 Congress made it official.

McGuire’s timing was perfect—he re-ordered the national metabolism. His day not only separates the languors of summer from the rigors of fall; it would generate many new social codes and customs. Young ladies were instructed that “Labor Day is the last day of the year when it is fashionable for women to wear white.” Shoes, gloves and handbags were pointedly included in that edict. Men: put away those shorts! Hirsute legs are no longer de rigueur.

But, above all, McGuire’s holiday is a time of renewal. Next week the air will quicken with tidings of new life. New plays! New concerts and operas and ballets and art exhibitions! New TV shows! Season tickets! Benefits! The daily mail is a howling blizzard of charity extravaganzas. New cars! New sports: Football! Soccer!

Best of all, new friends—or, rather, old friends, finally back after their mysterious summer retreats. To a much-loved unreachable island off the coast of Maine. To flute camp. To Scrabble camp. To meditation camp. To Trollope camp. Whatever. But next week those migratory birds will return to the place where they belong. I’m grateful to Peter McGuire for yanking them home.

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