May Day has been with us for centuries. Its overt meanings, and even the actual date, may change, but the sense of taking a day to do something different and more personal remains. People in every age and every part of the world have welcomed the onset of Summer and the chance to throw a party.
It’s May Day today. The first of May, that unequivocal date which, unlike the contested first day of Spring (is it the vernal equinox on 20/21 March, or the newer BBC version on 1 March?), is firmly set in the European calendar.
When I was small I genuinely thought that May Day was about Morris Dancers and Maypoles. We lived in villages in Hampshire, Wiltshire and then Gloucestershire, and my father was a rural science teacher who took his local community involvement seriously – so we all enjoyed a flavour of the festive rituals of many centuries, and are none the worse for that.
Holding on to traditions and ideas
I suppose that in some ways that was the end of a very long period in history, already mostly shattered by global stife and the increasing grip of technology. Looking back, it might be seen as idyllic, though that it certainly wasn’t; give me double glazing, wider horizons and lots of running hot water any day.
But there are vestiges of the ‘old’ May Day way of life which still resonate. The festivals (May Day, Harvest and what have you) were unselfconscious and for everyone. Our understanding of the seasons and cycles of the earth – I learned about crop rotation at a very early age, and about its history back to mediaeval times not much later – is something which still informs my perceptions, albeit now in terms of eco-systems. And the things we did were family inclusive; sometimes overly so, but at least everyone was there.
New meaning for old ideas
Only after I came to the city did I learn that there was also another ‘meaning’ to May Day – its use, on the first Monday of May, as a celebration of workers’ rights. Thus, 1 May 1886 in the United States saw the very first International Workers’ Day…. not to be confused with 1 September, which after historical debate is now set in America as Labor Day.
Such reinvention of celebratory events is not however confined to the U.S.A. In Liverpool since 1978, when the date first became a Bank Holiday, we have seen the first Monday in May used to underpin general festivities, to recognise Trade Unions and, occasionally, to celebrate shire horses. The scope is huge in a place with such long historical links to labour, but also with wide-open spaces such as Sefton Park right by the city centre.
Modern May Day
Activities this year for May Day are a million miles away from my hazy childhood recollections. There range from a demonstration in London to promote a Trade Union Freedom Bill, to a grass-roots Labor Arts Festival in Edmonton, Canada and a Maypole event at Liverpool’s Tudor half-timbered Speke Hall and Morris dancers (yes!) outside our wonderful St. George’s Hall, via big marches and strikes across the U.S.A. in favour of regularising the status of illegal workers.
Thus morphs the traditional May Day in a more politically conscious era, whether the objective be workers’ rights or a determiniation to see celebration through the arts of community in a more fragmented world. We can only be glad, whatever the detailed argument about the causes espoused, that people still see fit to make the effort.
We have lost much of the original understanding of May Day, and I’d guess that many people active today are not even aware of its historical roots. But things change only in some ways. For every person involved in worthy trade union activity today, there are probably still hundreds carrying on the original idea behind May Day, taking a day off work and getting out their lawnmower or barbecue set, as they prepare for some family’n’friends time in the garden.
Let’s hope the sun shines for everyone, demonstrators, gardeners and revellers alike.
Posted on May 1, 2006, in Arts, Culture And Heritage, Equality, Diversity And Inclusion, Events And Notable Dates, Liverpool And Merseyside, Politics, Policies And Process, Regeneration, Renewal And Resilience. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.