This week here in beautiful Coastal Georgia we are all looking forward to the upcoming Labor Day weekend. Across the Atlantic in the land of my birth, however, the British are now back to work since they celebrated their “late summer bank holiday” last Monday.
Labor Day, which always falls on the first Monday of September, is an American invention. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers” and represents a “national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” After a number of states passed their own version of this holiday, Congress adopted it in 1894.
The history of public holidays is often pretty interesting. Back in the U.K., the British usually call public holidays “bank holidays” since originally the banks were shut on these days so no trading could take place.
Bank holidays date back to 1871 when England, Wales and Ireland were granted four holidays including Boxing Day (the day after Christmas), Easter Monday, Whit Monday (which could fall anywhere between May 11 or June 14) and the first Monday in August, which was changed to the last Monday in August in 1971. Scotland, as is often the case, did something completely different, announcing five holidays with most of them on different days from the rest of the U.K.
These bank holidays originated during Queen Victoria’s long reign through Parliament’s Bank Holidays Act of 1871. This law was primarily the result of efforts of a banker, politician, scientist and general “renaissance man” named Sir John Lubbock, who also carried the title 1st Baron Avebury. He loved the very British game of cricket, so much so that he chose the dates when village matches were played in his home county! Bank holidays were known for a while as “St Lubbock's Days” and were all broadly associated with important religious festivals and agricultural holidays. August was a traditional time for seaside bathing holidays, and the boom of railway building in the 1840s meant that by the late 1800s ordinary working families could take a “holiday” (as the British still call any vacation) and reach the seaside.
Before the industrial revolution, Britain was a rural country and working hours were dictated by agricultural seasons and hours of daylight available for farming. An ancient tradition was to take Mondays off – known as “Saint Monday.” It is generally believed that factory owners struggled to stamp out this tradition, and it is likely that choosing Mondays for bank holidays originated from this old custom.
During the early and mid-1900s, bank holidays got a bad reputation and were often associated with working people drinking too much, and this association continued until the 1960s. Fortunately, this reputation was gone by the time of my childhood of the late 1960s and 70s, and a few of my selective memories are of family days with picnics and warm afternoons by the beach. However, I also remember other days of lots of traffic as the entire population of England seemed to want to go to the seaside at the same time, and of sitting in the back seat of the family car eating fish paste sandwiches and watching the windscreen wipers work hard as we peered out trying to get a view of the dismal, cold English coastline!
All that said, I intend to spend Monday by the pool, and in that spirit I leave you with a quote from the American writer Henry James, who made a reverse of my journey by moving from America to London where he became a British citizen: “Summer afternoon, summer afternoon! To me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”
God bless America, and enjoy your Labor Day weekend!
- ENDS –