1st May is a day of celebration and protest in countries all over the world. You may not be working today if 1st May is a public holiday in your country. It commemorates the struggle of the Labour Movement to gain important rights for workers. One particular period stands out in the history of the Labour Movement: in 1886, in Chicago, a three-day strike by workers culminated in violent clashes with police. During the rally an anarchist threw a dynamite bomb at the police, who opened fire on the unarmed crowds. Eight police officers and many civilians were killed and five protesters were tried and subsequently hanged for murder, even though there was no evidence that any of the accused had thrown the bomb. There was global condemnation of this ‘show’ trial, in which the ‘Haymarket Martyrs’, as the men became known, were tried almost entirely for their political beliefs rather than for their actions. In the following years, the event was remembered with rallies and protests around the world and, in 1889, a rally in Paris declared 1st May to be International Labour Day.
Under the Communist governments of the Soviet era in Eastern Europe, 1st May became a state-designated holiday marked by huge political parades and marches in which the crowds were greeted by the party leaders. In the face of this perceived appropriation of Labour Day by the Communists, Canada and the United States moved their public holiday to the first Monday of September. However, it remains a public holiday – known as a bank holiday in the UK – in many parts of the world, including China, France, India and Sweden.
For centuries, 1st May – or May Day – has been a time to celebrate the arrival of spring. The Romans celebrated Flora, the goddess of flowers, with a festival called ‘Floralia’, a day of feasting in which they decorated everything with flowers. In Sweden, Finland and Germany, the night before May Day is called Walpurgis Night, named after Saint Walburga, who was canonized on 1st May. The festivals are characterized by folk dancing and bonfires. In many European countries, the evening is also a traditional meeting of witches, who gather to welcome the spring.
In the UK, many of the rites and traditions of May Day derive from the pagan celebrations of the Anglo-Saxons. These were banned by the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell but reinstated during the Restoration by Charles II. 1st May 1707 was the first day of the Act of Union, in which England and Scotland joined to become the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
These days in Britain many of the pagan traditions are revived on May Day, with the crowning of a ‘May Queen’, dancing and tying ribbons around a Maypole and Morris dancing, in which dancers in traditional costumes with bells strapped to their ankles whoop and skip around each other. In Oxford, people gather around the foot of the great tower of Magdalen College at 6.00am to listen to madrigals sung by the college choir. Afterwards students, who have often been up all night dancing at May balls, attempt to throw themselves off Magdalen Bridge, despite being warned that the water underneath is no more than half a metre deep!
What weird and wonderful May Day traditions do you have in your country?
For more information and a May Day lesson plan, try this lesson for teenagers on onestopenglish.com: