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Sunday, 2 May 2010

May Day

Yesterday was the first of May; May Day. It’s a public holiday in many parts of the world, celebrated as International Workers’ Day or Labour Day. A bad deal this year for most workers this year, since it fell on a Saturday, but that’s just the luck of the calendar. Or maybe it’s also some kind of symbolism too; I have the impression that the position and status of workers all over the world have not been advancing particularly in the past twenty years, ever since the Soviet system collapsed and so-called free-market capitalism became globally (with a few exceptions) the only game in town. The increasing economisation of all walks of life has led, in many areas, to work being basically defined as unit labour costs, a component of general costs which the experts see as an area where rationalisation and cost-analysis (pseudonyms for cost-cutting) can lead to increases in profits and shareholder-value. Oh well, the events of the past few years – apart from all the misery caused – have at least shown that those who told us that all we had to do was to deregulate the markets and let business and finance just get on with magically making more money and prosperity for everybody frequently don’t know what they’re talking about. Yes, it does look like, having being bailed out by the public purses all over the world, they’re trying to move back to business as usual. Until the next time. Which will come, unless societies globally realise that maximising profits is not the panacea for all the woes humanity is heir to and force the economists and managers to factor in some values other than growth and profits into their computer models. Values like justice, honesty and decency. Otherwise, the final rallying cry at the end of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848), “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of the world, unite!” may well echo once more around the world.

The celebration of an international workers holiday on May 1 was inspired, ironically, by an incident in the USA, the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago on May 4, 1886, when, after a bomb was thrown, police fired on a demonstration for the 8-hour working day, resulting in several deaths, including a number of policemen killed by friendly fire. The Second International, the Marxist influenced socialist organisation subsequently called for workers’ protests and strikes annually on May 1 in support of the campaign for the 8-hour day and International Workers’ Day was born. Following the success of the Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of the USSR, May Day was established as a public holiday in many countries, not just communist ones, around the world. The US and Canada are exceptions, celebrating Labour Day on the first Monday in September – indeed, at the height of the cold war in 1958, the US Congress designated May 1 as Loyalty Day.


But May Day is not just a day of celebration of class struggle, workers rights and left-wing politics – it’s much older than that. May 1 is Beltane, one of the two great annual Celtic-Germanic festivals, the other being Samhain, exactly half a year later on November 1. It’s therefore no surprise that fairies, sprites and witches are particularly active on the evening before each festival. While Halloween is the festival which remained more strongly in folk memory in the Anglo-Saxon world, Walpurgis Night, the witches’ Sabbath, is a stronger tradition in many parts of Northern Europe – with German legends telling of witches gathering on the Blocksberg, the highest of the Harz Mountains. But other old customs have also survived; in the Rhineland there’s the tradition of young men stealing young birch trees, decorating them and placing them before the house of the girl they love; I remember as a child seeing yellow blooming furze bushes hanging from farmhouse windows in Ireland; and, of course, there are all the traditions of maypoles and maypole dancing throughout northern Europe, particularly strong in England.


Fertility rites, phallic symbolism, a celebration of rising sap and new growth, of the blessings of the fertility Goddess at the beginning of the merry, merry month of May, tricking and dancing, love and sex, surviving in the memory of ordinary people over hundreds of years, even when frowned on by the official (and believed in) religion of the Christian Church. Oh, the Church tried to Christianise May Day, as it had successfully taken over other festivals such as the midwinter one. May was proclaimed the month of Mary – an attempt to sublimate the old Goddess-worship. It worked to some extent but the old customs also remained.


I find it fascinating that the old, slightly subversive celebration of Beltane was taken up by the new, highly subversive workers’ movements of the 19th. Century. Popular memory is a powerful thing. How much of it survives in our technically dominated, commercially exploited, media networked global village remains to be seen. Somehow I have the feeling that, despite all our cultural and technological sophistication, we are not as far removed from nature, the march of the seasons and the turning of the year, birthing, growing, decaying and dying as we like to think. And that’s a good thing too.

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