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In 1882, Labor Day began to celebrate the social and economic achievement of American workers, focusing on their strength, prosperity and well-being, but it didn’t become a national holiday until 1894. A group West Indian friends in Harlem chose Labor Day to celebrate Carnival in the 1930s before moving the parade to it’s home in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights on Eastern Parkway in the late 1960s. This group is now known as the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, Inc.
Today, Labor Day in Brooklyn is a menagerie of color, food, music and good vibes. When you first arrive on “the Parkway,” you’re bombarded by the laughter of good friends, an older couple dancing together to their favorite song, a little girl waving the flag her father just bought her, teenagers singing along to music they’ve heard their entire lives. The atmosphere is electric. Walking down the Parkway, spectators can peruse vendors, lining the street and offering everything from a last-minute flag, to traditional Caribbean fare, and handcrafted trinkets. The street is quickly filled with elaborate floats, dance teams, community organizations and even a politician or two. But it’s the Mas Camps that are the real highlight of the day.
A Mas (short for masquerade) Camp consists of men and women dressed in colorful, dramatic costumes representing their various islands and, usually, a theme. These elaborate costumes are some of the most stunning handmade pieces of wearable art ever seen. Many of the bra tops and headpieces are ornately decorated with some combination of colorful fabrics, feathers, jewels and constructed with materials such as fiberglass, aluminum, or galvanized wire to maintain flexibility and still keep the overall structure. While the engineering is incredible, most of the costumes are not for the faint of heart, usually leaving little to the imagination. Each camp is competing against the other camps, trying to outdo each other with their music, dancing, interactions with the crowd and, of course, their costumes, for one of several highly-coveted Band of the Year titles.
The energy is so crazy at the Caribbean Day parade, that you can’t help but have a good time. Families and friends line the Parkway each Labor Day enjoying a decades old tradition that has celebrated for generations. It’s an incredible display of culture, art and history.