The curious case of “May Day”

Perhaps no holiday has more varied interpretations or is more politically volatile than “May Day,” the first day of May.

Some may know May Day best as a pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of celebration, actually a celebration of harvesting crops in May, somewhat of an odd raison d’être, considering that there are relatively few vegetables to harvest in May.   In Cornwall, the celebration came to include girls dancing around the “May Pole,” something that seems both odd and laden with phallic symbolism.

Most know May Day as International Worker’s Day, a combination celebration of the accomplishments of organized labor (more specifically the eight-hour work day) and a rally for further progress for the laborers of the world.  Its origin was in Australia in 1856, well before workers in most countries came to realize that their agendas could be best advanced through organizing.

It has not been without incident; in 1886 it turned into a veritable riot at the Haymarket Square in Chicago.  On May 1 of that year, strikers were protesting the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co.  It was peaceful enough, but continued, and on May 4, an unknown person threw a bomb at police.  That and the ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers and an undetermined number of civilians.  Ultimately eight so-called anarchists were tried for murder and four were put to death.

The significance of workers’ rights was fundamental to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as they published the Communist Manifesto in 1848.  The Communist parties of various capitalist countries called upon workers each year to engage in a work stoppage on May Day, to go to the streets and demonstrate their growing strength and international solidarity.  Following the Bolshevik revolution on 1917 (the completion of the overthrow of the czar in the Soviet Union by the Communist Party), May Day became a major holiday in the Soviet Union.  To this day, each May Day there are huge military parades down the boulevards of Moscow, featuring the Soviet Union’s (or now Russia’s) latest weapons, escorted by troops who march in a highly disciplined fashion.

While the parade may now seem a bit antiquated, quaint, and anachronistic, it was an extremely scary sight to Americans during the Cold War.  Over the past century, right-wing politicians have looked for ways to demonize the labor movement by characterizing it as a Communist front, and May Day lent fuel to their campaign of fear.  In 1958, Congress engaged in one of its most oxymoronic acts by taking a day recognizing worker’s rights and trying to replacing it with a semi-official holiday known as “Loyalty Day” (somewhat tantamount to the ‘W’ Bush administration labeling a “right to pollute” piece of legislation as the “Clean Air Act.”).

So as May 1 of this year approaches, we might most accurately describe it as “Confusion Day.”  Is it a celebration of the phallic symbols of the May Pole or the Russian tank barrels? Or, is it a genuine recognition of past victories and miles to go for the labor movement? Or, is it part of a great international Communist conspiracy?  Or, is it “Loyalty Day” in the United States?  Maybe it’s best called “Do your own thing” day, and that’s how each of us might celebrate it.

Note: Some information for this post comes from Wikipedia and other non-primary sources.