Workers of the World Unite! Today is May Day, which can be a little bit confusing if you live anywhere but in the U.S. We pretty much ignore it here, which simplifies things.
But in other parts of the globe May 1 is a big deal.
The original May Day started out as a spring festival where people danced around maypoles and celebrated spring in various other ways. It goes back to pre-Christian days but many of the customs were absorbed into Christianity. If you’re in Germany today, for instance, you might celebrate the story of St. Walburga, who gets the credit for bringing Christianity to Germany.
Things got complicated when the communists, socialists, anarchists and other ists got involved.
In 1904 the Socialist Conference of Amsterdam picked May 1 as International Workers’ Day. They wanted a day where workers could march for the universal acceptance of an eight-hour work day and other ideas that seemed radical at the time. Although they didn’t know it yet, they also needed a day for future communist countries to hold big parades that featured tanks and huge missiles with big red stars painted on the side.
Socialists and communists around the world still hold big protests on May Day, although you don’t hear so much from the anarchists any more. By their very nature, anarchists always were a little deficient when it came to organizing things.
So May Day ended up as a mixture of old folk traditions and the modern labor movement. Lots of countries celebrate May 1 as a national holiday. For years, most of the communist countries used the day for big military parades, which was ironic since many of the original May Day parades called for world peace. In the 1950s, the Catholic Church proclaimed May Day as St. Joseph the Worker Day to counter all the communist displays and demonstrations. After all, St. Joseph was a carpenter and if he didn’t understand how the working class felt, no one did.
You ended up with a soup of old pagan traditions overlaid by Christian events and topped off by workers of the world uniting for revolution. You can see how it gets confusing. Why, if you were in Europe today and accidentally took a wrong turn, you could end up dancing around a maypole, singing a song about Mary and Joseph and carrying a sign supporting the proletariat that calls for the end of warmongering capitalist imperialist dogs. You’d think they’d just go ahead and give everyone their own holiday to save on the confusion.
May Day never caught on real big in this country because we already had an official Labor Day, when all the workers got the day off and went on picnics, which seemed a lot more pleasant than marching around in big cities carrying signs and yelling at the police. However, there are some places in this country where if you aren’t paying attention you might find yourself in the middle of a good old fashioned socialist protest.
I’m thinking mainly of Seattle here. For a number of years, that city has been the center for American May Day protests. This year, a city council member has called for demonstrations to shut down highways and airports. How this helps the working man and woman isn’t entirely clear to me, but I’m probably not seeing the big picture. I’d sure be seeing red, though, if I were on the way to the grocery store in Seattle today and a bunch of protesters shut my street down.
People in Seattle are among the few Americans who take May Day seriously. Some of them are even going to march on Amazon headquarters today and demand a universal basic income of $1,000 for every resident of Kings County, free public transit, free community college tuition for everyone and 20,000 free public housing units. From a distance, it’s hard to tell if these people are the wave of a new future of more economic equality or just the leftovers from a failed 19th century philosophy looking for handouts. I’m pretty sure their demands will be ignored.
Back here in Ohio, we’re all hoping that today will be a nice day so we can mow the grass or maybe eat out on the patio. There are a few events planned in some of Ohio’s big cities, but for the most part May Day is just another day. No communists. No giant missiles parading down the streets. No one seizing the means of production. Not even a single maypole in sight. And that’s all right with me.
I suppose Karl Marx might be disappointed in me, but you know what? On May 2, the rest of the world will return back to normal. I’m just beating them there by a day.
David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU