“Memorial Day” has passed. I never get the Memorial Day/Labor Day distinction. I’m always thinking it’s the opposite, that Memorial Day should be in autumn and Labor Day in spring. In Europe, “Memorial Day” is All Saints’ Day, November 1. The day to remember war dead is November 11, Armistice Day, or Veterans’ Day in the US. So memorial days are typically in the autumn in Europe, while Labor Day--around the world, in nearly every country, except in the US--is May 1, in the spring. This makes sense to me.
What’s always struck me odd is that Labor Day isn’t May Day in the US. May Day as Labor Day began in the US, when workers in Chicago decided to strike for an 8-hour workday. Three days after the march, the Haymarket riot took place. Although May Day was already an ancient holiday in Europe, the International labor movement picked it up as a tribute to those killed in Chicago.
So when the US government decided to cancel May Day in the US, I took it as mere propaganda. For those growing up during the Cold War, May Day became less a day for the working person and more a day to see Soviet hardware on display in the evening news. The Soviet message that the Red Army was a “Workers’ Army” was lost, since by that time for Americans watching their televisions, May Day had assumed merely a message of strength and fear, quantity and not quality, which enabled Reagan to out-quantify the financial power of the Soviets.
But now I’ve been thinking about the symbolism of spring and autumn. In the Northern Hemisphere, spring is the season of new beginnings and potential futures. You’re hungry, but expecting a good year. The spring festivals are about the potential and unbounded fecundity of nature. They are progressive. Meanwhile, autumn is the season of looking back and counting profits. You’re well fed and looking forward to temporary inactivity in the future. Harvest festivals are celebratory, too, but they’re conservative, since the full harvest is in, and people know the exact limit of their supplies, which will have to last them until the next harvest.
Here the brilliance of the shift comes into play. Memorial Day was once about looking at what the soldiers had already done, had already sacrificed themselves for--the death side of life from a perspective in which it had already happened. When it was moved to the spring, however, it became about a future of death and warfare. This was mirrored in the transformation of the Department of War into the Department of Defense.
When Labor Day was a spring holiday, a planting festival, it brought to mind a hopeful and open future, when anything could happen. It was even carnivalesque, like Mardi Gras, when life was just beginning and the future was boundless. In contrast, when Labor Day was switched into an autumn holiday, a harvest festival, it suddenly came to symbolize the US labor movement--in other words, a conservative, “hold-on-to-what-you-got,” rear-guard defensive action. Labor Day was no longer a hungry time, with an unknown future of promise, but a well-fed time looking forward only to future inactivity.