May Day–what does it stand for?

21 Apr


When I was a boy, on May First, May Day, my mother passed out baskets of home-baked goodies, candies, flowers, and fruit. She made the baskets herself and put them on our nearest neighbors’ doorsteps. Mother was cheerful, the baskets were colorful, and kindness flowed. Spring was breaking out all over, and May baskets were its pleasant signs. For many years, this was the extent of my experience of May Day.

When I studied in Germany in the mid-fifties, May Day was celebrated throughout Europe as International Workers Day–with big parades and speeches. It’s akin to our American Labor Day on the first Monday in September, but not exactly the same.

Europe was swept by socialist revolutions in the 1840s and 1850s, which aimed at overturning the aristocratic and bourgeois classes that dominated society. To be a worker is more a matter of social class conflict–lending a militancy to May Day that isn’t present in the United States. In most European countries, after all, workers receive education from middle school on that leads to the trades–quite different from the academic stream that leads to the professions and higher corporate positions.

I’ll never forget my conversation with a British laboring man, who told me how important it was for him to be working class. He hoped his children would follow in his steps rather than pursuing a university education.

This social class situation infuses International Workers Day celebrations. There have been efforts to move our American Labor Day to May First, but they have never succeeded.

Moving to Chicago in the late fifties, I learned about the Haymarket Affair. Haymarket Square is located at Randolph Street and Desplaines Street–visible from the Kennedy Expressway. May 1 was chosen to be International Workers’ Day to commemorate the riot that took place in this square on May 4, 1886. The police were trying to disperse a public assembly during a general strike for an eight-hour workday when an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police. The police responded by firing on the workers, killing four demonstrators. Five men were convicted of staging the riot and hanged.

The statue commemorating this event was vandalized many times, especially during Vietnam War protests. After being rebuilt several times, the first Mayor Daley posted a 24‑hour police guard at the statue at a cost of $67,000 per year. In 1972, the statue was taken down and has been relocated twice in police department buildings. The men who were hung are buried in Chicago’s Waldheim Jewish Cemetery–located in suburban Forest Park. A number of other labor and social activists are buried in this cemetery, including the radical anarchist, Emma Goldman.

In the late 1970s, when we lived in Cambridge, England, we saw Morris dancers performing on the first of May and for a week or more afterwards.  In the yard in front of King’s College, they set up their maypole and danced around it. The maypole represents a living tree, and the dances have their origins in older fertility rites. The dancers wear colorful costumes, with bells around their waists, waving ribbons or batons as they go through their routines. In Cambridgeshire, these dances are also known as the Plough dances that mark the beginning of the farmers’ season of plowing and planting.

I’ve experienced May Day as a celebration of nature’s coming back to life in Spring–joyful and lighthearted–and also as a remembrance of the social turmoil that has marked the struggle of workers for decent pay and conditions. To the maypole graphic shown here, I would add the raised fist of the international workers movement. It’s a complex combination–bringing in concerns for both the environment and for social justice Much to think about as May approaches.

(c) Phil Hefner–4/21/2017

 

 

2 Responses to “May Day–what does it stand for?”

  1. sandyjwhite April 21, 2017 at 11:28 pm #

    Very interesting! I was not aware of the social justice aspect of May Day.
    But I have fond memories of placing May baskets on neighbors front steps
    filled with fresh sprigs of spirea and forsythia cut from bushes in our yard.

  2. Liftthescreen April 22, 2017 at 2:49 am #

    Thanks – – I have such pleasant recollections of that time seems so long ago now. I thought perhaps this was the Nebraska custom, but a reader mentions that she did it in Connecticut, too.

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