I remember the term “May Day” being confusing to me when I heard it the first time. As a non-native speaker, it was a little too close to the “Mayday” distress call, and given that Bank Holidays in the UK are usually on Mondays instead of the date itself, it took my immigrant mind a little while to connect the dots. “Mayday”, the international emergency call, has of course absolutely nothing to do with “May Day”, the international celebration of the workers’ movement. It also has no connection to the traditional spring festivals that are celebrated all over the Northern Hemisphere. Mayday replaced the SOS morse code in 1923, deriving from the French “m'aider“ (help me). May Day is one of the most intriguing public holidays with a rich history that’s not confined to just one country.
Writing this article I was intrigued about how little I knew about the actual history of the political holiday, although I grew up in a very left wing family that attended protests and demonstrations on every First of May during my childhood. The long-standing worldwide tradition is an impressive example for the impact that the workers’ movement actually had on society.
That shouldn’t really be surprising, but in modern times it is far too easy to forget that our freedom, our democracy, our human and civil rights had to be fought for, in long and bitter campaigns run by unions, workers representatives and yes, by socialists. The world as we know it today is not a result of capitalism at work, although that might have created a lot of the wealth and technological progress we enjoy. Social progress is a result of strong movements of people standing up for their rights and achieving better circumstances for the majority of citizens. Those who are not wealthy, not influential and often not privileged.
May Day is a reminder of this, and it is still a moment to celebrate the workers’ movements around the globe. In some places that’s to be expected, like China, Cuba or Russia, where (former) socialist governments claim May Day as part of their very own traditions. But also in the UK and many other European countries May Day remains an important holiday. It’s of much less importance in the US, which is curious, since this is where the tradition started with unionist movements striking against 12-hour-workdays in 1886.
This strike led to violent clashes in Chicago, where during the “Haymarket riot” a bomb was thrown from a group of protestors into police forces trying to stop their demonstration. More than 200 people got injured and many died in the following riots, and seven leaders of the protest were later sentenced to death by courts. The Socialist International association declared May First to be the “International Workers’ Day” two years later and commemorated it ever since. In the following decades, May Day as a working class celebration gained so much momentum that even the Catholic church took it up as the day of Saint Joseph the Worker, foster father of Jesus.
In Germany, unions and left wing parties organize marches every year, in the past accompanied by a huge number of activists of the “Friedensbewegung”, the national peace movement. In “socialist” East Germany before the reunification, the May Day celebrations were huge and organized by the government. These protests are usually peaceful family events, but in their shadow Germany is usually battered by the notorious “Mai Krawalle”, mostly in Berlin, where anarchist and far left groups have been rioting every year since an initial incident in 1987 in the area of Kreuzberg, an alternative quarter of the capital. Burning cars and masked protestors in black clothes make a regular appearance in newspapers on May Day, much to the dismay of pretty much everybody on all sides of the political spectrum.
Even in the time before 1945, May Day was a consistent holiday in Germany. While the German Emperor and his governments had no interest in supporting a workers’ day, the Weimar Republic declared it a public holiday in 1919. Hitler’s National Socialist government kept it as “Day of National Labour” to celebrate the working class and ironically used its first celebration in 1933 to close down all German labour and trade unions to replace them with national socialist organisations, controlled by the government.
The political May Day celebrations always mixed with older folkloristic spring festival traditions, partly hailing from pagan times. In some German regions, these traditions leave a strong mark on everyday life, and some of them can be quite fierce. While there is harmless fun like “Dance into May” festivities in many towns and villages throughout Germany, others can lead to serious physical altercations. In Bavaria it’s a common ritual to erect a huge, decorated maypole in the centre of village communities. The young men of the village (sometimes limited to those who are unmarried) spend the following night defending the pole against other villages. If stolen, it can only be bought back by handing over huge amounts of beer, and the same rule applies for fellow villagers who get kidnapped in the course of this battle. People in Baden, Swabia, Austria or East Frisia, where maypole celebrations are also common, usually waive the idea of hijacking trees and competing for beer.
It is all fun and (drinking) games until someone gets seriously injured, like one of my school friends in the early 90s. He fell victim to a maypole thief in the Rhineland, far North of Bavaria, where the rules are a little different: Not villages compete here, but young gentlemen struggling for attention from their adored ones. The maypole in this case is a birch tree that has to be taken from a nearby forest (or bought, if felling trees in a forest at night is not your thing). Young women around Cologne hope for their boyfriends or suitors to place a decorated tree under their window – and to defend it throughout the night against other young men who want to steal it to use it at their own love interest’s house. My school friend got beaten up while defending his tree and had to spend days in hospital.
The usual custom would have been less annoying: The maypole remains for exactly one month at the house of the girl to then be collected by the person who set it up. That’s the moment of truth: Up to this moment, it remains a secret who actually brought it to the house. The parents of the girl can then show their approval by gifting either beer or a cake to the young gentleman cleaning up the birch tree in front of the house. Needless to say, psychotherapist Siegmund Freud was intrigued by the phallic character of this very special gift.
But what about the witches?
We must not forget them. Another brilliant myth of May Day is the Walpurgis Night. Saint Walpurga was hailed by Christians as protector from witchcraft, and the night from April 30th to May 1st was the “Hexennacht” (the Witch’s night), when witches met on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, a range of wooded hills in central Germany, to dance and celebrate their evil deeds. In many parts of continental Europe it’s still common to light fires in this night to fend off witchcraft and evil spirits, essentially Bonfire Night without the effigy. Burning witches, even in circumstances like this, is out of fashion – thank God.