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Scottish Games among highlights of Labor Day weekend events

34th annual Harvest Wine celebration, Pleasanton's Firehouse Arts Center anniversary also on tap for 3-day holiday

Thank goodness for Labor Day weekend -- a chance to pause and catch our breath after the frenzied rush of back-to-school and back-to-work with no vacation days in sight.

It's as if summer gets one last moment to shine: three days of time off with warm weather and plenty of ways to celebrate the last long weekend before the clocks roll back and the holiday season rolls in.

We have been honoring the American worker on the first Monday in September since Congress declared it a national holiday on June 28, 1894. Labor Day is a big government "thank you" to all those who spend the majority of their days contributing to the country's strength, prosperity and well being.

In Pleasanton, it's the last weekend before the soccer parade marches through downtown and fall sports begin to fill our fields, stadiums and calendars. It's also when, despite our varied ethnic backgrounds, we all have the opportunity to become a wee bit Scottish, acknowledge our Valley's wine heritage and celebrate a milestone with one of our newest cultural centers.

So, what are you planning to do with all those extra hours this weekend?

Consider starting at the fairgrounds where the Scottish Highland Gathering and Games will be celebrating their sesquicentennial anniversary for the second day today, Sunday.

The Caledonian Club of San Francisco has been hosting the Celtic celebration since the inaugural event took place on the corner of San Francisco's Hayes Park at 12th and Market streets on Thanksgiving Day in 1866.

Now, 150 years later, the event has grown from a family picnic atmosphere featuring old Scottish games like "throwing the heavy hammer" and "blindfolded wheelbarrow race" to the largest event of its kind in the United States, with over 35,000 spectators enjoying national and world competitions.

"You've heard of three-ring circuses," explained Frank Busby, as he described the wide variety of events taking place this weekend. "It's not a three-ring circus; it's a 21-ring circus."

Busby, a member of the Caledonian Club of San Francisco, serves as promotion chairman for the games, a job he performs with traditional Scottish pride.

"The Scots like facilitating social opportunities; we enjoy perpetuating the Scottish culture," he said. "That is still the aim of the games -- to broaden and promote our traditions."

Those traditions, he is quick to explain, can be enjoyed by a wide variety of backgrounds and ethnicities: "I always invite people from other cultures to come out and experience the Games, and people from other countries have thanked me for encouraging them to go."

Busby pointed out there is always something interesting to learn about cultures that are different from your own, and with over 1,000 years of history, the Scottish Games have had plenty of time to develop from their original military-training roots to a festival fit for families.

The list of activities goes on so long you'll have to visit the website to make sure you're not playing games in the Children's Glen when the Highland Dancing begins, or hanging out with the Clydesdale horses when you should be watching the sheep dog trials.

Be sure to check the schedule for the Heavy Athletics -- this is the stuff legends are made of, with roots extending back to ancient Scotland.

These games, in their modern format, certainly highlight the celebration. More than 70 professional and amateur athletes from eight different countries will compete in eight grueling events that include "putting the heavy stone," "56-pound weight for distance" and the iconic "tossing of the caber" -- a 22-foot, 150 pound pole.

"Game of Thrones" fans will be thrilled to learn that the series' popular character, "The Mountain," known in real life as Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, has challenged the dozen professional entries to a shootout in the "weight-for-height" competition.

Bjornsson, who placed second in the World's Strongest Man contest, is one of only two humans to have succeeded in tossing a 56-pound weight over a 19-foot bar. Bjornsson, who will also be available for autographs both days, will compete against the world's best at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday before flying to Ireland to continue his work on the popular HBO series.

The music at the Scottish Games is not to be missed.

With six stages providing a continuous cornucopia of diverse styles from traditional Scottish/Celtic balladeers to high-voltage Celtic rock, there is a constant stream of music to keep you entertained while crossing the grounds.

But you'll want to find a grandstand seat for the afternoon closing ceremonies, when nearly 40 pipe bands from the U.S. and Canada form the largest assembly of pipe bands in America.

"The gathering of the bands is done elsewhere," Busby explained. "But our covered grandstands bring the music right up to you. They come in waves, 850-900 pipers and drummers followed by the L.A. Scots Grade 1 Pipe Band playing with the Third Marine Aircraft Wind Band. It's really a remarkable experience."

While it may not yet have the longevity of the Scottish Games, the 34th annual Harvest Wine Celebration will definitely be "crushing" it this weekend over in the Livermore Valley.

In all, 42 wineries will host up to 6,000 wine enthusiasts from all over the Bay Area and beyond today from 12-5 p.m.

"Our celebration is one of the first events to mark the start of the harvest season," said Chris Chandler, executive director of the Livermore Valley Wine Growers Association. "We have a long, fun history here. It's authentic and people have made it a tradition to visit their favorite wineries."

Organized by the Wine Growers Association, the event highlights the friendly nature of the Livermore wine industry.

"Wente and Concannon will both be serving their own wines, as well as hosting tastings from other wineries that might be too far out of the Tesla/Greenville Road to attract visitors, or too small to accommodate the revelers," Chandler said. "It's a cooperative effort for sure."

If drinking isn't your thing, or you're the designated driver for the day, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy the harvest celebration. Besides offering some of the most beautiful views in the Valley, most of the participating wineries are featuring food, music and arts and crafts exhibits, plus discounts on wine to take home and enjoy later when driving is not a concern.

Non-drinkers are required to wear a participant's bracelet for admittance, but it's hard to complain once you know that all proceeds from the $5 purchase price are donated to the Livermore area schools' Every 15 Minutes programs, which educates high school students about the dangers of drinking and driving.

It may seem there is a lot to do and not much time to get it done with just one official day of harvest happenings, but be aware, the fun is continued unofficially for a second day with 30 wineries honoring the bracelet for tastings and special events right through Labor Day itself.

Event details

150th Scottish Highland Gathering and Games

Tickets

Two-day adult, $31

One-day adult, $24

Senior, $13

Student, $13

Under 11, Free

For complete schedule, visit the scottishgames.com.

34th Annual Harvest Wine Celebration

Tickets:

Advance, $45

Day-of, $55

Non-drinker, $5

Advance tickets available online (www.lvwine.org) through 11 a.m. Saturday.

On Sunday, tickets can be purchased at the participating wineries.

* Ticket includes: entrance into participating wineries, wine tastings from over 40 wineries, special activities at each winery, exclusive wine discounts, Livermore Valley Wine Country glass and event program.

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