I can’t help thinking that there’s something quite weird about Labor Day. What’s the one thing most of us look forward to doing this September 3rd?

Not laboring.

Celebrating “Labor Day” by escaping work is as peculiar as naming a Mississippi village “Alligator” (population: 220), after a reptile most people find disgusting and will flee on sight—even maybe one in a Labor Day Parade. Moreover, it’s peculiar in the same way: Both names elicit contradictory feelings and attitudes: pride and aversion.

The second-to-last thing anyone wants to do on Labor Day, no matter how proud of his or her job, is to work a shift, instead of relaxing with a beer in one hand and a TV remote,  golf club  or someone else’s hand in the other—the choice of last resort probably being to spend Labor Day up close and personal with a toothy, leering alligator.

In both cases the honorific official name (“Labor Day”, “Alligator”) seems to convey a very mixed message—“Work is good!” vs. “Not working is better!”, “Come here!” vs. “Run! (Or stay away!)”

Labor Day laziness is also as odd as the idea of an “Inauguration Day” on which nobody is expected to show up to be inaugurated or even to show up as an honored guest—an anarchist’s dream come true. In both cases, there is an obvious conflict about how to participate and show respect. Ditto for a “Hermits Day Parade”.

This Labor Day irony, despite its comic aspect, suggests a deep and serious ambivalence about work—the kinds of mixed feelings that, as will be shown, the official names of places like Alligator and Moose Jaw; state, provincial and national animals (“Alligator mississippiensis” being the official Mississippi reptile); and other holidays, such as “Mother-in-Law Day” (the 4th Sunday in October) predictably elicit.

Then, of course, there is “Asbestos, Quebec” (population: 7,096 in 2011)—speaking of things related to work (in this case, asbestos mining) that we simultaneously honor and dread.

Mixed Feelings about Other Things We Honor

Consider the cities, states and provinces named after fearsome animals, tribes or cultures that, in historical terms, have been fled, displaced, hounded or otherwise removed, e.g., “Shark Bay” (Western Australia),  “Dakota“ (North and South) and “Moose Jaw” (Saskatchewan), not to mention “Buffalo” (New York), definitely not a city “where the buffalo roam” now.

Unsurprisingly, Shark Bay has a population of only 1,000.

Forty percent of all U.S. states have Native American names (complete list with origins, here), honoring what was once feared, but with indigenous populations that are now minuscule in relative or absolute terms, e.g., North Dakota, with only 3.5%—including however many Dakota tribe members reside there.

It’s the same in Canada, where four of the thirteen provinces and territories have Aboriginal names, but scant numbers of Aboriginals, e.g., as few as 2% in Ontario ( which in extinct Huron and Iroquoian, respectively, means “great lake”, “beautiful water”).

As for ambiguously  and ambivalently honored, hunted or displaced animals, Canada knocks itself out in naming places after them: Moose Jaw, Red Deer, Salmon Arm, Bear Lake, Badger, Bass River, and Fox Valley— the list of animal “honorees” goes on and on.

Asking whether Labor Day is treasured because we love work and/or because we love a day off from it, is like asking whether Alligator, Mississippi is called “Alligator” because the locals want to honor the reptile, appease it, exploit it, showcase taming it, lure it, use it to attract tourists and/or alligator hunters, or to repel them, or all of the above?

Are the locals ready to protect swamp alligators, shoot them on sight, feed them, simply ignore them, reminisce about the last time they saw a real alligator, or, again, “all of the above”?  Talk about being conflicted.

That’s how Labor Day makes me feel.

Another reason for Alligator ambivalence: Since the species Alligator mississippiensis is the protected and official Mississippi state reptile, don’t expect to find alligator shoes and bags in any local tourist shops.

That may make some shoppers even more ambivalent about visiting there. Moreover, “protected” doesn’t necessarily mean “loved”, as the history of the snail darter vs. pipeline jobs attests.

The same goes for a union job.

A “Blitzkrieg Boulevard” for London?

Viewed in terms of the most primitive mindset, calling a village “Alligator” is equivalent to making that unpredictable and dangerous reptile a community or clan totem—to appease, placate, manipulate, exploit or identify with it, which are key interactions with totem animals as clan icons.

(Never minimize the human tendency to name things, including our kids, reptiles, demons and days, so we can better control them.)

Such strange place names really are as peculiar as the names “Washington, D.C.” or “Washington State” would be if they somehow caught on after the British had driven Washington back across the Potomac and won the Revolutionary War.

Equally odd would be a “Blitzkrieg Boulevard” in London or “Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse” in Paris. Impossible—and not just because the latter name is not haute French.

Clearly either of these names, if official, would trigger the most intense ambivalence, of which Labor Day ambivalence is a milder form. At best all these names would elicit mixed pride, if any.

Labor Day Guilt, Fear and Trophies

Apart from the pride vs. laziness emotional conflict, may there not be other motivations underlying Labor Day ambivalence?

Is one common denominator among the names “Labor Day”, “Moose Jaw”, “Alligator” and “Dakota” guilt or fear (in addition to respect)?—in the case of Labor Day, perhaps guilt for not working as hard as one should or appears to have—guilt sidestepped by partying.

Or is it fear—fear of anyone suspecting we’re loafing?

Freud suggests that primitive fear of reprisals by the vengeful spirits of enemies, e.g., vicious crocodiles or warriors killed in battle motivates contrition, appeasement and honoring rituals.

Is it not also possible that we implicitly honor the FedEx delivery man on Labor Day from the fear that if we don’t, our boxed computer monitor may get tossed over our fence into our yard?

Then there is the matter of “trophies”: Primitive tribal ambivalence about fallen enemies blended rituals of atonement, e.g., a period of “mourning” (that mitigated guilt) with trophy displays, e.g., scalps—perhaps one of the most dramatic forms of ambivalence known to man.

Perhaps geographical regions are named after former or displaced enemies to make those places trophies. Although far more innocent, counterpart proud Labor Day trophy displays, e.g., service vehicles in Labor Day parades, coexist with whatever work-associated guilt (for not working hard enough the rest of the year, for taking Labor Day off) is (un)consciously experienced.

It Can’t Be This Complex—Can It?

But, wait. It can’t be this complex. We take time off from work to celebrate lots of things, without any ambivalence whatsoever. Just as we do on Labor Day, we very reasonably take time off from work to celebrate weddings, Presidents’ birthdays or New Year’s Day, for example.

Nice try. The fact remains that the idea of taking time off from work to celebrate not taking time off from work is really confusing, if you think about it (even after allowing for some “celebrating the fruits of your labor” Labor Day rationale, which, by the way, is not the same thing as “celebrating your labor”. Remember, Labor Day celebrates labor, not goods and services).

But how about the idea that Labor Day is a reward for our laboring the rest of the year? Yes, a day off as a reward for all the days worked makes simple sense—but not when trying to glorify those days worked at the same time—unless the work is a “sacrifice”.

However, honoring labor as a sacrifice is like honoring dinnertime broccoli by handing out ice cream to your kids. That’s doable, but psychologically a tricky juggling act.

A ”Lawn Mowing Day” celebrated by letting the grass grow would be similarly questionable.

Labor Day Emotional Masks

Bottom line: “Labor Day” seems to be the same kind of conflicted misnomer as “Dakota”, “Moose Jaw” or “Blitzkrieg Boulevard” is, despite its well-known and encapsulated intent to honor working men and women, labor unions, worker solidarity, etc.

BIAN LIAN (CHINESE FACE CHANGING)/Photo: Michael Moffa (Lao She Teahouse, Beijing)

By simultaneously connoting “a holiday” (a.k.a. “holy day”) and “a work day”, and a day off that feels better than the days on it celebrates, “Labor Day” resonates in an emotionally contradictory way, like something simultaneously sublime and mundane, or like the drawing of a rabbit that looks like a duck, or the figure skater who seems to rotate clockwise at one moment, but suddenly in the opposite direction, if you blink.

The eternal and inescapable fact is that, on average, work is at times, if not always, going to have at least two  emotional faces, maybe three, maybe more—at least one that is positive, one that is negative.

Like the Chinese “bian lian” (“face change”) masters who, in the blink of an eye and shake of their heads can mysteriously change their face masks without touching them, you, on Labor Day, will probably need more than one mask to pull off your emotional act.

So, if you are going to march in a Labor Day parade, go prepared.

Pack more than one mask.

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