By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
No, I’m not confused. I know it’s not the first Monday in September. Today is May Day. A day that marks the unofficial beginning of Spring and, I believe, the time when weeds start outnumbering plants. But in modern times May Day has taken on a completely different meaning and is now more closely associated with the rights of workers. As with most things these days, my naïve memory focuses more on the former than the latter, with recollections of romping around the May Pole when I was in elementary school. Actually, in Novato, California in the 1950’s we didn’t really have a May Pole. I’m not even sure we had a Pole. But each May 1 our rather imaginative teachers would festoon the tetherball post with crepe paper streamers and balloons and we thought it was magical. We learned to dance around it, weaving under and over each other’s streamers, until we had completely smothered the post with our efforts. Then we were supposed to reverse ourselves and unwind the streamers but instead it always ended up in a snarled mess. Somehow through the years, at least in the U.S., we don’t celebrate the traditional way anymore. Instead, over the past several days I’ve been reading about the “May Day” demonstrations planned for today so I got to wondering how we went from sweetness and light to tear gas. In our continuing effort to shine some light on these burning questions today’s post is all about that journey.
As with so many of our holidays, May Day began as a pagan festival to celebrate the beginning of summer. Yes, summer! Spring started in February so by May everyone was ready to slap on some sunscreen and begin the summer festivities. As Europe became increasingly Christian, the pagan holiday was dropped but May 1 was still celebrated. Depending on the country, celebrations included either religious overtones (Catholics devoted the day to the Virgin Mary) or more secular observances, such as the Maypole dance, singing, and…CAKE! I knew I liked this holiday. Up until the late Twentieth Century it was also common to celebrate with May Baskets, which would be filled with flowers and perhaps some sweets and left on a neighbors doorstep. In some cultures, mostly in Britain, they also crowned a May Queen or the Queen of the May. I can recall my mother asking me, “Who do you think you are…Queen of the May?” on more than one occasion so I assume the “queen” received very special treatment and probably didn’t have to dry the dishes after dinner. The crowing of the May Queen continues today in most British towns, with young girls donning flower garlands and leading the local May Day parade. I’m guessing that gives her first spot in the cake line too which would be an added perk to the title.
But now on to the other May Day – commonly known in most parts of the world as International Workers Day. The two days became intertwined in the late 1880’s. On May Day 1886, 200,000 U. S. workmen engineered a nationwide strike for an eight-hour day. The strike in Chicago’s Haymarket Square turned violent when police rushed into the peaceful crowd and a bomb was thrown at them. Seven policemen died and four of the protesting workers were shot by police. It was subsequently known as the “Haymarket Affair”. In 1889 the International Socialist Conference declared that each May 1 would be observed as a day to honor labor in remembrance of the workers lost in the Haymarket Affair. Thus, in many parts of the world today is International Workers Day, or Labor Day, a day of worker solidarity and protest. Over the past century there have been many protests around the world and in the U.S., most notably in Seattle, which has apparently become famous for coffee and rioting.
No doubt there will be many demonstrations today and hopefully they will all be peaceful. As for me, I’m going to do my best Queen of the May impression and eat some cake.