Labor Day, a federal holiday that falls on the first Monday in September in the United States, is, to most Americans, a day off from work and a last hurrah for summer plans. But for what, exactly, do we celebrate the holiday? 

The History

Beginning in the late 1800s, trade unionists wanted a day to celebrate the American labor movement and the many contributions people brought to the United States. 

The very first Labor Day parade was held in New York City in 1882, and only five years later, Oregon became the first state to make it a public holiday. In 1894, thirty states had begun celebrating the day, and in that same year, Congress passed a bill that recognized Labor Day as a federal holiday, signed into law by former President Grover Cleveland.  

At first, the holiday was only designated for federal workers. However, by the 1930s, unions were encouraging people to strike if they didn’t get the day off, ensuring that all states would eventually adopt the holiday. 

“Oklahoma was very progressive at the time and our constitution was very pro-labor,” says Larry O’Dell, director of communications and development at the Oklahoma Historical Society. “In fact, the signers gave their pens to National Labor leader Samuel Gompers.” 

Gompers, a British-born American transplant, founded the American Federation of Labor and served as its president twice for a combined total of over thirty years. 

Labor Day in the 21st Century

Today, Labor Day is less structured in its reasons for celebration. 

“In Oklahoma City, it was a very big celebration in the early 20th century, where all the unions sponsored parades and events,” says O’Dell. “Now it seems that it mainly serves as a celebration for the end of summer and one more trip to the lake.” 

What to Do

Oklahoma is no stranger to Labor Day celebrations. We offer a few suggestions below:

The Labor Day Celebration
Citywide, Henryetta
Sept. 1-5
Visit the city for parades, events, concerts and family fun, complete with free admission.

The Watermelon Festival and Community Fair
Mainstreet, Ringwood
Through Sept. 3
This full week of fun includes bingo, volleyball tournaments, pageants, the crowning of Miss Watermelon, a livestock show, turtle races and free admission.

The Choctaw Nation Labor Day Festival
Tvshka Homma Tribal Grounds, Tuskahoma
Sept. 2-4
This event features traditional arts and crafts, as well as homemade American Indian items. There is also a 5K run/walk as well as softball, baseball, cornhole and volleyball tournaments. Free admission!

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