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Sometimes a tradition has quite a lot in common with bad weather – people don’t know where it comes from, and they don’t really care when it disappears.

This is the fate of May Day. Almost everywhere in Europe, people set up maypoles - usually a painted tree trunk adorned with twigs or blossom, around twenty feet high.

May Queen
Photo: Electra T
A May Queen in Brentham, England

In England, people sometimes also crown a May Queen and organise a parade which she has to lead. They even have a special dance round the maypole. Or in Corfu, before they set up the maypole, your neighbours first pillage your garden in order to make the wreath for their pole. And in countries like the Czech Republic or Germany, people fear similar acts of thieving: they’re afraid someone from a nearby village could even grab the whole maypole and run off with it, so they organize guardians.

Maybe they’re well advised to do so, because not far away in the German Harz, the night from April 30 to May 1 is usually showtime for witches and devils. On “Walpurgis Night” people celebrate a very mysterious and unique carnival, only to ban the demons for another year after dawn.

may pole in Sweden

Photo: Wiglaf
A maypole in Sweden

To understand what May Day is all about, you have to turn back time some 2000 years: it all started in Italy at a time when people called themselves Romans and didn’t drive many Fiats or Ferraris but nevertheless invaded a whole continent at the speed of sound. They celebrated a festival called “Floralia“ to honour their goddess Flora, who embodied spring and was not only responsible for flowers but also comfortable living and for youth in general.

Celtic, Germanic, and even Hellenic tribes copied this talented woman from Roman culture and started to mingle her with their own traditions. What came out in the end was the maypole, the May Queen and all the other things which happen on the 1st of May.

In Central Europe, “Floralia” and her imported habits competed with “Walpurgis Night,” an originally pagan festival, which still lingers on between Sweden and Germany. In the end, people combined the maypole and Walpurgis Night. This meant that maypoles were even used to protect houses from witches and devils.

The 1st of May probably would have been reserved for witches and pole-pinchers if it hadn’t been for the Haymarket riots in Chicago, Illinois. The struggle for the “eight-hour day” on the 4th of May 1886 broke the monopoly of good old maypoles.

The Chicago riots were the beginning of Labour Day, which would become the most important event for the worldwide solidarity movement. In Chicago the labour movement had found its proper bank holiday, uniting parties, trade unions and philosophers in marches and demonstrations against exploitation and oppression. Thus the 1st of May is still a day off for workers in thirty countries on the European continent.

Photo: Boris Ludwig
Our author Boris Ludwig

People from Eastern Europe have been much less enthusiastic about May Day since it was imposed on them for decades by their communist governments. Still, like most things about Socialism, the idea seemed to be good – organizing a nationwide get-together so that a happy and prosperous workers' state could celebrate its workers.

There were red flags and red tulips everywhere and sometimes a pair of stockings or other reward for a particularly effective comrade (there is a term for a such a person in the languages of the post-communist countries, but not in English, funnily enough). So why not take part in such a cheerful demonstration, with speeches about the latest achievments in the ironwork industry? Especially if the alternative was to get into trouble with the secret police, sometimes simply ending up in jail.

communist demonstration on 1st of May
Photo: ComIntern
A communist May Day demonstration in 2008, Izhevsk

Some countries still do like to celebrate the 1st of May as Labour Day. In Italy “la festa dei lavoratori” attracts hundreds of thousands of people: since the early nineties, Italian trade unions organise a colossal rock concert near Rome.

It was also the Italians who tried to bring May Day back to life. In 2001 a EuroMayDay parade was organized in Milan. Since then, more and more people have taken part, in more and more places: this year there will be demonstrations in 16 big cities from Helsinki to Naples, united in the fight against poverty and exploitation. They’re still demanding the same changes they wanted in 1886.

And to complete this panoramic vision of Labour Day, let’s have a look at North-Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, where the 1st of May has submitted to proverbal German thoroughness as people don’t just celebrate an ordinary Labour Day, but the „day of commitment to freedom, peace, social justice, the reconciliation of races, and the dignity of man“. What a party.

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