The Labor Day celebration of 1912 was, by all accounts, quite a bash. An estimated 100,000 people turned out for a daylong festival that included what the Minneapolis Labor Review described as "a mamoth [sic] parade" in the morning, a picnic in the afternoon and a dance in the evening.

The celebration of 2012 is not going to come anywhere close to matching that, although some people might end up spending all day in an endless parade of traffic as they try to get home from their cabins.

Labor Day's significance has changed immensely in the past century. Once all about work, now it has more to do with play. These days, its primary function is to serve as the last weekend of summer vacation, an indication, some observers say, of a major cultural realignment.

"Labor is not something this culture honors anymore," said Peter Rachleff, a history professor at Macalester College. "Now we honor leisure."

The shift in the stature of the holiday has been a gradual process, said Jim Kilma, a machinist who was manning an information stand at the AFL-CIO booth at the State Fair one morning last week. In the early part of the 20th century, union activists fought difficult -- and sometimes even bloody -- battles for worker's rights that are taken for granted these days. Many younger people aren't familiar with that part of labor history.

"As we lose that connection with the fight, we lose the connection with the holiday," he said. "If you grew up in the '30s, '40s or even '50s, you might remember rallies that gave a meaning to Labor Day. But society doesn't celebrate work anymore."

Rachleff said that Labor Day isn't the only holiday that has lost touch with its original meaning. Take, for instance, its counterpoint on the other end of the summer, Memorial Day, which many people consider the first day of vacation.

"I remember Memorial Days as a kid when we'd go hear someone recite the Gettysburg Address," he said. "Now people go to the lake."

That's just the start of the list, he added: "We used to have Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays, which were combined into Presidents Day and are all about shopping. And Thanksgiving, which is focused on the Packers and the Lions [football games]. And there are plenty of people who will talk to you about the commercialization of Christmas."

Labor Day likely will never return to the gigantic celebrations of 100 years ago, but that doesn't mean that it has to forfeit all its significance, said Kelly Bakke, a carpenter who was passing out union buttons at the fair.

"We understand how labor helps, and people need to be reminded," she said. "Has Labor Day lost its meaning? Not to us."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392