July 7, 2015

MAY DAY, the Roman festival of Flora, goddess of and fruit flowers was a celebration to mark the beginning of summer. Before 1752 it was a much longer celebration celebrated from April 28th to May 3.

Young girls got up before sunrise to wash their faces in the early morning dew.  They believed it would make them beautiful for the following year. And Flowers gathered in the early morning were used to decorate homes with the belief that it would bring good fortune to their home.

Trees were cut & trimmed to make May poles. Villagers danced around the poles celebrating the end of winter & the beginning of planting time.

I remember, as a school girl in Halifax, making garlands in preparation for May Day. On that day each young student wearing ribbons in her hair and a colourful garland around her neck held the end of a ribbon attached to the top of the maypole and danced around the pole weaving the ribbons together as they danced along Brunswick street to our destination, St. Patrick’s Church.

I remember it was always fun. A happy day filled with sunshine. I often wondered why the wonderful celebrations were stopped. History holds that story.

Workers around the world changed the spring festivities into a manifestation of working-class power.

On May 01, 1886 workers fought for an 8-hour work day. In Chicago, that struggle resulted in workers being locked-out at a harvesting machine plant.

When after the 1917 revolution the Soviet Union made May 1st a statutory holiday it became more complicated to separate May Day from communism. Governments reacted. France tried to change it to a day of national unity rather than workers’ solidarity, while Italy banned celebrations altogether.   In 1933 Nazi Germany made May 1st a “National Day of Labour” and banned unions the following day.

May Day flourished in North America before World War I, but was largely abandoned during the 1920s.   Workers in the 1930s and 1940s brought it back again but it declined again during the Cold War. It was largely displaced by peace marches in the 1960s, and regained some of its importance in the 1970s & 80s as Canadian & U.S. governments attacked the labour movement and working people.

May Day and Labour Day have both been used, adapted and recast over the past years. One suggestion is we might celebrate Labour Day as a reminder of what labour has won and mark May Day in anticipation of what we still need to do.


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