All over the world red banners are flying as working people celebrate May Day. PETER FROST joins the festivities.

Workers all over the world will come together to demonstrate and celebrate today. This is the International Workers holiday, Happy May Day.

Marxist Eric Hobsbawm declared May Day “the only unquestionable dent made by the secular movement in the Christian or any other official calendar”.

In fact the day has two parallel histories; one as the worker’s celebration when red banners fly in the spring sunshine all across the globe and another more traditional celebration of the end of winter and the approach of the better weather of summer.

Both of these themes are related of course. It is no coincidence that they both look forward to the celebrations of better times to come.

There are a whole number of reasons that May the first has become the special day for the workers of the World.

One key anniversary was the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. Police gunfire killed at least four demonstrators and injured many more who had been taking part in a Labour march.

On Tuesday May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago workers organised a peaceful rally in support of those striking for an eight-hour day.

A dynamite bomb was thrown at the police as they tried to disperse the meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers. At least four civilians were killed and scores of others were wounded.

In 1889, the first congress of the Second International, meeting in Paris called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago killings.

May Day was formally recognized as an annual event at the Communist International’s second congress in 1891.

In 1904, the International Socialist Conference meeting in Amsterdam called on for demonstrations on May 1 for the legal establishment of the eight hour day.


In many countries, including here in Britain, working class organisations fought to make May Day an official holiday, and their efforts largely succeeded.

May Day has traditionally been an important official holiday in countries such as the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, and Cuba.

For many years, in the former Soviet Union the day was celebrated by huge demonstrations including military parades.

May Day celebrations typically featured elaborate popular pageants and parades with major communist leaders using the day to make keynote speeches.

The biggest celebration was traditionally organised on Red Square, where the General Secretary of the CPSU and other party and government leaders stood on Lenin’s Mausoleum acknowledging the to the crowds.


Just who was or wasn’t on parade on May Day was often an indications of changes in the Party hierarchy. Kremlin watchers studied the TV pictures searching for clues of real or imagined inner party rivalries.

Cold war military experts did the same thing with the military hardware on parade looking for scraps of evidence of new weapon systems.

They will be doing exactly the same today with the film from North Korea’s May celebrations.

Meanwhile far-right governments have traditionally sought to repress the message behind International Workers’ Day, with fascist governments in Portugal, Italy, Germany and Spain abolishing the workers’ holiday over the years.

The USA and Canada do not officially recognise May Day – too much like socialism for them – and have tried to hi-jack Workers Day.

The US government attempted to erase history by declaring that May 1 was Law Day instead. They pronounced that Labour Day was to be on the first Monday of September.

However red flags still fly and workers still march in every major US and Canadian city on May Day.

Meanwhile in Cuba today on May Day thousands march in the streets showing their support for the popular revolution.

In Greece, May 1 is a public holiday marked by demonstrations to which left-wing political parties and unions participate.

The first May day celebration in Italy took place in 1890. It started initially as an attempt to celebrate workers’ achievements. It was abolished under the Fascist Regime and immediately restored after the Second World War.

Today May Day is an important celebration in Italy. More than half a million people will attend the famous left wing organised May 1 Concert.

May Day was celebrated illegally in Russia until the February Revolution enabled the first legal celebration in 1917. It was a huge celebration in the Soviet Years and since 1992, May Day is officially called “The Day of Spring and Labour”, and remains a major holiday in present-day Russia.

In South Africa, Workers’ Day has been celebrated as a national public holiday on the 1 May each year since 1994.

May Day, of course, is a very old celebration, much older than its history as a worker’s holiday. The Celtic pagan festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night are both part of its rich parentage.

Traditionally this day has been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations. Early accounts tell us of young people taking to the woods on the eve of the First of May with predictable results.

As you would expect the Christian church tried to hijack and clean up the whole celebration. Many Christmas carols started life as pagan Maying songs.

‘God rest you merry gentleman’ was originally sung as ‘Here’s to you merry Mayer’s all’.

So much so that in 1955 the Pope named Mayday as the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, the patron saint of workers. As so often the Christian tactic was if you can’t beat ‘em just nick their happiest celebrations.

The church did it with Christmas and Easter but have had a lot less success with May Day.

In Britain it wasn’t until 1978 that the Labour Government created the May Day bank holiday officially. The Tories have always hated it and today’s Con-Dem crew have plans to get rid of it.


Many traditional celebrations still continue.

In Oxford May Morning revellers gather below the Great Tower of Magdalen College to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals. Some people usually risk life and limb jumping off Magdalen Bridge into the all too shallow River Cherwell.

Whitstable, Kent, hosts a good example of more traditional May Day festivities, where a character called Jack in the Green leads an annual procession of morris dancers through the town on the Holiday.


Padstow in Cornwall holds its annual ‘Obby-Oss’ (Hobby Horse) day of festivities. This is believed to be one of the oldest fertility rites in the UK; revellers dance with the Oss through the streets of the town.


Prior to the slaughter of the First World War most English villages had a Maypole, sadly after the war most were replaced by war memorials. Today there are new Maypoles on many a village green.

Scotland celebrates Mayday too. In St Andrews, some students gather on the beach late on April 30 and run naked into the North Sea at sunrise.

Both Edinburgh and Glasgow hold big Mayday festivals as well as Labour movement rallies.

In Edinburgh, the Beltane Fire Festival is held on the evening of May eve and into the early hours of May Day on the city’s Calton Hill.

An older Edinburgh tradition has it that young women who climb Arthur’s Seat and wash their faces in the morning dew will have lifelong beauty.

Officially Irish May Day holiday is the first Monday in May.

On May 1, 1561, King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. He decided to offer this fragant flower each year to the ladies of the court.

Since the beginning of the 20th century a sprig of lily of the valley became a symbol of springtime and May Day.

When I have been in France for May Day I have found French Communist Party stalls selling these fragrant left wing favours. You can smell the lovely perfume on political demonstrations and marches. It could only happen in France.

In rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the decorating of a Maibaum or Maypole. Many German left political parties and trades unions organise marches or demonstrations.

Wherever you are celebrating the workers holiday, in Britain, on one of our many national or regional celebrations or perhaps in more exotic places around the world remember those red banners will be flying in every corner of the Globe. The Internationale will be sung in a hundred different tongues.

For today is the International Workers Day. Happy May Day!

Some ideas for days out with a May Day Theme.

Edinburgh in Flames

On the last night of April, several thousand people will gather at Calton Hill in the centre of Edinburgh to celebrate the Beltane Fire Festival. It involves dazzling fire displays. Edinburgh’s festival will involve around three hundred performers, marking the end of the Scottish winter

Dancing on the Rude Man


Bright and early on May 1 the Wessex Morris Men dance on the Cerne Abbas Giant. The Giant is a mighty, 180ft tall, chalk figure with a huge phallus cut into the Dorset hillside. Local folklore has long held the Giant to be an aid to fertility.

The Green Man fights the Ice Queen

At noon on Saturday 4 May, crowds will gather on Clun Bridge to witness the Green Man defeat the Frost Queen to ensure there is a summer. The leaf covered Green Man represents nature and fertility. After the battle the Green Man will lead a colourful parade to the grounds of Clun Castle and a craft and festivities fair.

Brighton Mayfest

Brighton will come alive with an abundance of creativity and innovative thinking between 5 May and 27 May. The three-week-long, Brighton Fringe event offers a choice of 675 events, staged at 193 venues across the city.

‘Obby ‘Oss Day Padstow.

They were celebrating May Day in Padstow before Rick Stein invented the town. On 1 May the two ‘Obby ‘Osses – each one consisting of a  six foot wide wooden hoop draped in black sail cloth prance through the town followed by a troupe of musicians, singers, drummers and dancers.

Minehead in, Somerset, has a similar ‘Obby ‘Oss tradition dating back 500 years

Riding the Berwick Bounds

Berwick-upon-Tweed has been riding the bounds since 1438 when the border between England and Scotland was agreed. It happens on May Day itself.

Flower Garland in Abbotsbury

In mid May the Dorset village of Abbotsbury celebrates its Garland Day, a tradition that has been taking place since around the early 19th century. The custom involves the making of wild flower and garden flower garlands by the children of the village.


Ten Things you need to know about May Day

May Day is Beltane, which means ‘day of fire’. It is an ancient Pagan festival. Bel was the Celtic God of the sun.

The first Maypoles were a growing tree brought from the woods. Single men and women would dance around the Maypole holding on to ribbons until they became entwined with their new loves.

Class and social position was set aside on May Day. Everyone from the highest to the lowest joined in as equals.

May Day is a celebration of fertility. Whole villages would go to the woods and all sorts of temporary sexual adventures would take place.

The Greenman, sometimes known as Robin Goodfellow was the Lord of Misrule on May Day. He and his merry men would make jokes and poke fun at the local authorities.

A Puritan Parliament banned May Day festivities in 1644.

May Day is the only major festival of the year with no significant church celebrations or services.

Working people would often take May Day off to celebrate even if their employers disapproved.

This feature appeared in the Morning Star May I 2013


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