03 May 2008

May Day 2008

Comrades and Friends,

Unite and unite and let us all unite,
For summer is a come unto day,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May.
Padstow May Song (Traditional)

As we conclude the celebration of May Day 2008, it occurs to me that may be worthwhile reviewing the history of the event which occurred in the USA and created the second most celebrated holiday in the world. Only Christmas day, December 25, is a holiday celebrated in more lands by more people. Like Christmas, May Day stated out as pre-Christian holiday celebrating the change of seasons. The Irish called it Beltane. It is Calan Mai in Welsh. The Celts saw the solstices and equinoxes as falling in the middle of the season rather than beginning a season. Hence, the summer solstice falls on "mid-summer's day" Given the wide range of cultures that celebrate this day, whether as Roman Floria festival or the Germanic Walpurgis Night, it seems that there exists an internal human need to acknowledge the changing of the seasons.

During the Middle Ages, the Christian Church attempted to replace the Maypole with the cross by naming May 1st, Roodmas, or celebration of the cross. May Day continued to be celebrated across Europe by the "common folk" as fertility festival, complete with a loosening of sexual mores. Couples went to woods for a tryst beginning at sundown on April 30th. They would then join the village celebration the next day where the May Queen was elected to preside over the festivities. The May Queen would symbolically mate with Herne, the horned stag god. Later, the May Queen became Maid Marion and Herne was supplanted by Robin Hod (Hod being another name for Herne) Later the name would become Hood and the antlers would give way to a green suit as Robin transformed into the Green Man or Jack of the Green of Celtic legend. The celebration saw a complete attack on the ruling social system. The "old King Oak" would be killed by the "young King Holly". The peasantry was symbolically killing off the aristocracy with new leaders like Friar Tuck replacing the abbot, Robin Hood and Little John replacing the knights, and Maid Marion replacing the gentle ladies.

Still latter the Church would attempt to replace the elected May Queen with adoration of the Virgin Mary. Both clerical and secular attempts to stamp out the holiday or change its thinly hidden revolutionary message failed in Europe.The holiday never became popular in the New World, however. Religious "puritans" objected not so much to the obvious pagan elements of the feast, but to its ties the "papist" Catholic Church and latter saw a link in its celebration to new immigrants coming from majority Catholic areas. Some things do not change.


Hal an tow, jolly rumble oh
We were up long before the day oh
To welcome in the summer
To welcome in the may oh
The summer is a-comin' in
And winter's gone away oh

Take no scorn to wear the horn
It was a crest when you were born
Your father's father wore it
And your father wore it too


Robin Hood and Little John
Have both gone to the fair oh
And we will to the merry green wood
To hunt fox and hare oh
Hal An Tow ( Tradition Morris Dance tune ans song)

In 1886, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, the largest labor federation in the USA planned a general strike for the eight hour work day. May 1st was picked as the day the strike would begin. Many workers were immigrants happy to resume the custom of picnicking with their families that they had enjoyed in the old country. Companies generally paid workers at the end of the month so starvation and homelessness were not immediate concerns.May 1st that year was also a Saturday which was frequently a half work day, while Sunday was almost always a day off. Thousands struck across the country and Federation leader Samuel Gompers called the day a "new Declaration of Independence".

Three hundred fifty thousand workers joined the general strike. Many others joined parades and protests across the country. In Chicago, on May 3rd, police officers fired on a group of unarmed workers at the McCormick Reaper plant, killing six and wounding dozen. The next night on May 4th, a rally was held in Haymarket Square to protest the massacre. As the rally was ending, Chicago police entered the square. Someone, no one has ever determined who, threw a bomb at the police ranks. One officer died immediately. A gun battle ensued, in which a number of protesters and several police officers were killed. It was widely believed that at least some of the police casualties were due to friendly fire.

Eight Chicago anarchist leaders were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang for the Haymarket killings. This occurred despite the prosecution producing no evidence that any of the men were in any way involved with the violence. Indeed, several were not present when the violence broke out. Four of the convicted were later hanged, one committed suicide, and the other three were eventual pardoned due to the massive world-wide outcry.

In 1890, American Labor was again preparing for a strike for the eight-hour day. The American Federation of Labor, as America's largest trade federation was now called, requested that the Second Workingmen's International meeting in Paris support the strike. The Second International urged all its member organizations to fully support a world-wide movement for an eight-hour day. The event was so successful that, in 1891, the Second International declared May 1st to be International Labour Day and it remains so to this day. Unfortunately, in the United States it is Law Day and Loyalty Day and most Americans are completely unaware of how such a massive
international holiday began in the United States.

...Let the winds lift your banners from far lands
With a message of strife and of hope:
Raise the Maypole aloft with its garlands
That gathers your cause in its scope....

...Stand fast, then, Oh Workers, your ground,
Together pull, strong and united:
Link your hands like a chain the world round,
If you will that your hopes be requited.

When the World's Workers, sisters and brothers,
Shall build, in the new coming years,
A lair house of life—not for others,
For the earth and its fulness is theirs.

Walter Crane, The Worker's Maypole, 1894