8 Facts About Labor Day

Sviatlana Barchan/iStock via Getty Images
Sviatlana Barchan/iStock via Getty Images

For more than 125 years, Americans have celebrated Labor Day on the first Monday of every September, but the origins of this holiday have been somewhat lost to time. Now it's seen as the unofficial end of summer (and hot dog season), the dreaded return to school for kids across the country, and a time to score a great deal on a mattress. But with more than a century of history to sift through, you'd be forgiven for not knowing about the holiday's roots. So from the true story of its beginnings, to the final word on whether or not you can wear white afterward, here are eight facts about Labor Day.

1. The first Labor Day parade was held in New York City in 1882.

If you were a factory worker in the 1880s, you were probably toiling away at your job for an average of 60 hours a week, and it wasn't unheard of for textile laborers in New York to make only 75 cents a day, which was a paltry sum, even for the time. To bring attention to these unfair working conditions, labor organizers coordinated the first Labor Day parade on Tuesday, September 5, 1882.

Close to 10,000 people attended the parade, according to a New York Times article published on September 6, 1882. Marchers carried signs bearing slogans like “Eight Hours for a Legal Day’s Work” and “Less Hours and More Pay.” The New York Times called the demonstration “pleasant” and “orderly,” although it noted that the parade’s organizers expected closer to 30,000 or 40,000 laborers to show up and support the march.

2. The Origins of Labor Day are still disputed.

Historians often credit Peter J. McGuire, co-founder of the American Federation of Labor, as the first to propose a holiday celebrating workers. According to the modern-day American Federation of Labor, McGuire brought up the idea in an 1882 meeting of the New York Central Labor Union, saying that workers should lead a parade to “publicly show the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.”

But researchers from the New Jersey Historical Society suggest the true founder may have been someone else with a very similar name: Matthew Maguire, a machinist from New Jersey who led several strikes in the 1870s, and by 1882 had become the secretary for the New York Central Labor Union. In an 1894 editorial about the holiday, which President Grover Cleveland had just signed into law, a New Jersey newspaper said the honor should go to Maguire, the “undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.”

However, some historians suggest that labor organizers may have deliberately tried to cloud Maguire’s association with Labor Day’s origins, concerned that the holiday might become associated with his “radical” politics (he was a member of the Socialist Labor Party).

3. There’s a reason Americans celebrate Labor Day over May Day.

On May 1, 1886, 35,000 workers went on strike in Chicago as part of a larger organized labor protest across the country. For the first two days, the protests and demonstrations were peaceful, but by May 3, violence broke out between laborers and police during a protest at Chicago's McCormick Reaper Works factory, leaving several workers wounded or dead. The incident encouraged anarchist labor leaders to call for another protest the following day in Haymarket Square, where violence broke out again after police attempted to disband the crowd. At that point, an anonymous individual threw a bomb at the police, killing one officer at the scene. The police retaliated, and when all was said and done, seven officers and (at least) one civilian were killed in the chaos, and plenty more in the crowd were injured.

Following the riot, police arrested eight anarchist leaders on charges of conspiracy. Seven of the eight were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, despite the fact that six of the defendants weren’t even in Haymarket Square at the time the bomb was thrown. At the Second International Socialist Conference in 1889, members voted to celebrate May 1 as International Workers’ Day, often referred to as May Day, to commemorate the Haymarket affair. President Cleveland wanted to avoid the socialist and anarchist connotations of May Day, so when he established a holiday to celebrate America's workers, he chose the first Monday in September, calling back to previous traditions from New York's labor movement.

4. Oregon was the first state to make Labor Day an official holiday.

In 1887, Oregon became the first state to celebrate Labor Day as a legal holiday. In 1894, the rest of the United States followed suit when President Cleveland signed the holiday into law after political pressure created by his suppression of the Pullman Strike. Cleveland, aware that he needed to appease the labor movement, pressed for nationwide recognition of the first Monday in September as Labor Day.

5. Canada’s Labour Day is also celebrated on the first Monday of September.

Prime Minister John Thompson signed Labour Day into law in 1894, the same year Cleveland declared it a national holiday in the United States. Many labor unions that held successful events in the United States, like the Knights of Labor, also had branches in Canada. Thompson was similarly motivated by mounting political pressure from labor activists, who organized several strikes to demand a nine-hour workday.

6. People once tried to make “Labor Sunday” a thing.

In 1909, the American Federation of Labor declared the Sunday before Labor Day “Labor Sunday”—an opportunity to reflect on the spiritual and educational parts of the labor movement. It never really took off among the general public, but some churches and religious organizations acknowledge the holiday during Sunday services.

7. There’s no good reason why you shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day.

You can ignore that age-old myth that you shouldn’t wear white after Labor Day—there’s nothing wrong with it, most fashion moguls say, and the “rule” has always been rather arbitrary. Instead, you should “wear what’s appropriate,” the Emily Post Institute says, “for the weather, the season, or the occasion.”

8. Labor Day is a dangerous day to be on the road.

Because so many people travel during Labor Day weekend (over 35 million, according to a AAA study), roads tend to be much more crowded—and because of that, they're more dangerous. According to data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, the U.S. saw an average of 308 fatal car accidents per year during Labor Day weekends from 2011 to 2015. That’s second only to the average number of fatal accidents seen during Memorial Day weekend (approximately 312 per year).

The Most Popular Christmas Movie in Each State

dusanpetkovic/iStock via Getty Images
dusanpetkovic/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone has a favorite classic holiday movie, from 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life to 1983’s A Christmas Story to 1988’s Die Hard, which may or may not fit the criteria for a festive film depending on who you ask. Home advice website House Method decided to see if those favorites varied by state. To find out, the site polled 4580 people and compiled the results into handy infographics.

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by state is pictured
House Method

As you can see, A Christmas Story dominates the country, with 24 states and a total of 12.8 percent of respondents naming it their favorite. The 2003 Will Ferrell comedy Elf came in second, with 11 states and 11.2 percent of the vote. Rounding out the top five—when looking at the overall percentage—are 1990’s Home Alone and It’s a Wonderful Life, with a dark horse—1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas—scoring 6.3 percent of voting and winning over Tennessee. Nebraska was an outlier, naming 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation their favorite.

Here’s how it breaks down by count according to state:

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by state is pictured
House Method

By percentage is where animated classics like 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas rank:

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by percentage of votes is pictured
House Method

Kansas and Vermont selected Die Hard, an often-contentious choice. (The film is set during Christmas in Los Angeles, with Bruce Willis’s everyman cop forced to battle terrorists in Nakatomi Plaza during a holiday party.) House Method decided to throw in a bonus question: Does the film qualify as a Christmas movie? The survey says no, with nearly 60 percent declaring it ineligible for holiday status. Sorry, Bruce.

An infographic depicting survey results about 'Die Hard' being a Christmas movie is pictured
House Method

[h/t House Method]

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

iStock
iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER