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WORKERS all over the world will come together to demonstrate and celebrate May Day — the international workers’ holiday.
Let us explore the two parallel histories of this important day. One is the workers’ celebration when red banners fly in the spring sunshine all across the globe and another more traditional celebration of the end of winter and the approach of the better weather of summer.
Both of these themes are related of course. It is no coincidence that they both look forward to the celebrations of better times to come.
There are a whole number of reasons that May the first has become the special day for the workers of the world.
One key anniversary was the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. Police gunfire killed at least four demonstrators and injured many more who had been taking part in a Labour march.
On Tuesday May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago workers organised a peaceful rally in support of those striking for an eight-hour day. A dynamite bomb was thrown at the police as they tried to disperse the meeting. The bomb blast an ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers. At least four civilians were killed and scores of others were wounded.
In 1889, the first congress of the Second International, meeting in Paris called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago killings.
May Day was formally recognised as an annual event at the Communist International’s second congress in 1891.
In 1904, the International Socialist Conference meeting in Amsterdam called on for demonstrations on May 1 for the legal establishment of the eight hour day.
In many countries, including here in Britain, working-class organisations fought to make May Day an official holiday, and their efforts largely succeeded.
May Day has traditionally been an important official holiday in countries such as the People’s Republic of China, North Korea and Cuba.
For many years, in the former Soviet Union and other socialist countries the day was celebrated by huge televised demonstrations including military parades.
May Day celebrations typically featured elaborate popular pageants and parades with major communist leaders using the day to make keynote speeches. The biggest of these celebrations was traditionally organised on Red Square, where the general secretary of the CPSU and other party and government leaders stood on Lenin’s Mausoleum acknowledging the crowds.
Just who was or wasn’t on parade on May Day was often an indication of changes in the party hierarchy. Kremlin watchers studied the TV pictures searching for clues of real or imagined inner party rivalries. Cold war military experts did the same thing with the military hardware on parade looking for scraps of evidence of new weapon systems.
Despite Trump and Kim Jong Un’s recent talks in Hanoi pundits will be doing exactly the same today with TV from North Korea’s May celebrations being closely scrutinised.
Meanwhile far-right governments have traditionally sought to repress the message behind International Workers’ Day, with fascist governments in Portugal, Italy, Germany and Spain abolishing the workers’ holiday over the years.
The US and Canada do not officially recognise May Day — too much like socialism for them — and have tried to hijack Workers Day.
The US government attempted to erase history by declaring that May 1 was Law Day instead. They pronounced that Labour Day was to be on the first Monday of September.
However red flags still fly and workers still march in every major US and Canadian city on May Day and they will this year much to Donald Trump’s annoyance.
Meanwhile in Cuba today on May Day thousands march in the streets showing their support for the popular revolution.
In Greece, May 1 is a public holiday marked by demonstrations in which left-wing political parties and unions participate.
The first May day celebration in Italy took place in 1890. It started initially as an attempt to celebrate workers’ achievements. It was abolished under the fascist regime and immediately restored after the second world war.
Today May Day is an important celebration in Italy. More than half a million people will attend socialist and communist organised rallies, events and concerts.
May Day was celebrated illegally in Russia until the February Revolution enabled the first legal celebration in 1917. It was a huge celebration in the Soviet Years and since 1992, May Day is officially called “the day of spring and labour,” and remains a major holiday in present-day Russia.
In South Africa, Workers’ Day long banned by apartheid racist forces has been celebrated as a national public holiday on May 1 each year since 1994.
International Workers’ Day, also known as Labour Day and May Day (May 1), is observed across China with a three-day holiday. There are speeches by party officials, award ceremonies for model workers and a large-scale evening gala.
May Day, of course, is a very old celebration, much older than its history as a workers’ holiday. The Celtic pagan festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night are both part of its rich parentage.
Traditionally this day has been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations. Early accounts tell us of young people taking to the woods on the eve of the First of May with predictable results.
As you would expect the Christian Church tried to hijack and clean up the whole celebration. They were not very successful. Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm declared May Day “the only unquestionable dent made by the secular movement in the Christian or any other official calendar.”
Many Christmas carols started life as pagan Maying songs. “God rest you merry gentlemen” was originally sung as “Here’s to you merry Mayer’s all.”
In 1955 the Pope claimed Mayday as the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. Joseph it seems is the patron saint of we workers. As so often the Christian tactic was if you can’t beat ‘em just nick their happiest celebrations.
The church got away with it with Christmas and Easter but have had a lot less success with May Day.
In Britain it wasn’t until 1978 that the Labour government created May Day as an official bank holiday. The Tories have always hated it and today Theresa and her divided crew can at least all agree they would like to see the back of May Day.
Many traditional celebrations of May Day as the start of the rebirth of nature in the spring still continue. In Oxford May Morning revellers gather below the Great Tower of Magdalen College to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals. Some people usually risk life and limb jumping off Magdalen Bridge into the all too shallow River Cherwell.
Whitstable, Kent, hosts a good example of more traditional May Day festivities, where a character called Jack in the Green leads an annual procession of Morris dancers through the town on the holiday.
Padstow in Cornwall holds its annual “Oss” festival, Obby-Oss (Hobby Horse) day of festivities. This is believed to be one of the oldest fertility rites in the UK; revellers dance with the Oss through the streets of the town.
Prior to the slaughter of the first world war most English villages had a Maypole, sadly after the war most were replaced by war memorials. Today there are new Maypoles on many a village green.
Scotland celebrates May Day too. In St Andrews, some students gather on the beach late on April 30 and run naked into the North Sea at sunrise.
Both Edinburgh and Glasgow hold big May Day festivals as well as impressive Labour movement rallies.
In Edinburgh, the Beltane Fire Festival is held on the evening of May eve and into the early hours of May Day on the city’s Calton Hill.
An older Edinburgh tradition has it that young women who climb Arthur’s Seat and wash their faces in the morning dew will have lifelong beauty.
Officially the Irish May Day holiday is the first Monday in May.
On May 1, 1561, King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. He decided to offer this fragant flower each year to the ladies of the court.
Since the beginning of the 20th century a sprig of lily of the valley became a symbol of springtime and May Day.
When I have been in France for May Day I have found French Communist Party stalls selling these fragrant left-wing favours. You can smell the lovely perfume on political demonstrations and marches. It could only happen in France.
In rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the decorating of a Maibaum or Maypole. Many German left political parties and trades unions organise marches or demonstrations.
Wherever you are celebrating the workers’ holiday, in Britain, on one of our many national or regional celebrations or perhaps in more exotic places around the world remember those red banners will be flying in every corner of the globe.
The workers anthem the Internationale will be sung, its rousing chorus echoing all over the world in a hundred different tongues.
Join the celebration, for today is the International Workers Day.
And here to finish is a special May Day treat from Frosty. You can hear a Jamaican Reggae Version of the Internationale.
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