Labor Day.  The last day of summer vacation. Officially, yes.  But in practice, no more.  During the nine years we lived in the UK, Labor Day seems to have lost much of its meaning as the flow of summer changed in the US with shifting school calendars.  Whether you’re in university or first grade, other than a few exceptions, it’s highly likely you returned to school before Labor Day.

And, the idea of summer vacation.  Does it even exist any more?  Leisurely days with no obligations. Nothing scheduled. Relaxing on the beach.  Running barefoot in a stream.  Leaving the worries of daily life and the world behind.

Even before the recession this was hard.  Between the choices for summer camps and classes and wireless devices does anyone really leave all their cares behind any more?  Certainly not in the US.  And, although I have many English friends who would strongly argue the opposite, in Britain (and even more so Europe) the summer holidays, and school holidays year-round, seemed more sacred. For both children and their parents. Interestingly, the word each nation chooses to use to describe time off from work or school seems to capture some of this cultural difference.

As many people know the word holiday comes from holy day – haliday (c.1200), from O.E. haligdæg “holy day; Sabbath”- and in the 14th Century came to mean both religious festival and, my favourite, day of amusement.  In the mid-1800‘s people started to holiday and the word became a verb.

The roots of the word vacation are a bit more complex. It too stems from the 14th Century when it meant freedom or release from an occupation: Old French, vacation, and Latin, vacationem (nom. vacatio) “leisure, a being free from duty” and vacare “be empty, free, or at leisure.”  The three etymology dictionaries I checked each also trace vacation to vacuum (an empty space), to which eventually they also tie vacant.  Interesting, since the modern notion of vacationing started in the mid-1800‘s in part when people vacated the City for the beach, seaside or any body of water. But what I find most fascinating is the fact that the word vacation reflects America’s Protestant work ethic and does not at all incorporate the concept of amusement, glee, delight or even pleasure.

According to Cindy Aron in her book Working at Play, prior to the 1850’s, Americans used the word vacation when speaking about students’ or teachers’ breaks from school. In the mid-19th Century, newspaper and magazine articles began to urge businessmen to periodically set aside their pursuit of wealth in favor of good health, family and, yes, even enjoyment.  And in the same way people began to holiday in Britain, the professional middle-class in the US began to vacation and thereby challenge the longstanding Puritanical notion that amusement was not respectable or worse yet immoral.

Fast forward to the 21st Century and although we now know how to amuse ourselves over the summer we seem to have lost our ability to relax and have honest fun.  Like so many other activities in modern life, our summer vacations must embody a sense of purposefulness to seem worthwhile.  More and more we’re simultaneously desperate and afraid to break from structure, overstimulation and our reliance on electronic devices.  Leisure and ultimately our pursuit of happiness and fulfillment have become structured exercises rather than things we’re spontaneously capable of doing.  Without guidance, we don’t know how to let go and rediscover freedom or release from occupation.  Just think of the increasing number of products, services and industries that are centered on encouraging us or even teaching us how to let go of routine, check our electronics at the door and enjoy simple pleasures.

Several years ago I did some innovation work for a British holiday company and although we take vacations in the US, the primary learning still resonates.  Without giving away any proprietary knowledge and at the risk of stating the obvious, empirically, a fun, summer vacation (especially one for the whole family) should embody all the things we’d imagine: exploration (unconstrained by parents and supervisors if you’re a child), discovering new things, enjoying old hobbies, feeling good about just doing nothing and spending time with old friends and meeting new ones.  Fathers are also seeking to gain a sense of satisfaction from seeing their children happy and time to bond and get closer to their children.  And, for mothers, a relaxing summer vacation should combine thinking of others with escape: little or hassle-free coordination of other’s activities; knowing that the rest of their family is happy (husband notably included and sometimes ahead of children); and, peaceful and perhaps even a bit of wild time for herself.

As the etymology indicates, our summer vacations are meant to be free from duty, empty of time and space.  And, I haven’t missed the irony that I’ve had to work hard to include a few weeks of free time in my son’s summer holidays over the years or more notably that I’m writing this on Labor Day, the sanctioned last day of summer.  Perhaps that’s why I’m growing nostalgic for a good old English summer holiday, cold and rainy as it often may have been.