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May Day, Maypoles and Worker’s Rights

By: Julie Halligan

In the Northern Hemisphere the traditional ‘May Day’ celebration is an ancient festival whose origins are shrouded in the mists of time. It is said that the earliest May Day observances began in pre-Christian times out of the Roman empire, a dedication to the Roman flower goddess Floralia, or Flora and a celebration of the advent of the arrival of Summer and blossoming flowers.

However we know that the Roman’s were great mimics, in fact this was one of their greatest attributes, their ability to mimic rather than create. A consult with the google gods confirms that they did indeed acquire this festival from earlier Greek sources, in the form of the nymph Chloris. This is confirmed via the Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, otherwise known as Ovid, who makes reference to this plagiarism in his poem ‘Fasti V’, “As she talks, her lips breathe spring roses: I was Chloris who am now called Flora”. Chloris in Greek mythology was married to Zephyr (Favonius), the wind god and she was known to consort with another companion well known to history, Hercules. Central to the May Day celebrations were five days of drinking and dancing which culminated on the sixth day with the hunting of goats and hares.

The May Day ritual celebration became embedded within the Celtic culture of Europe and Britain and along the way acquired the presence of the May-Pole whose meaning is varied depending on which set of cultural eyes you look through; Yggdrasil, Axis Mundi, Phallic et al. The May Day celebration stubbornly endured in some European societies, despite Christianity, well into the late 19th century when it became entangled with the West’s blue collar worker’s protest movement for fair working conditions and a 40 hour working week.

More specifically it was the reaction to an ‘eight-hour working day’ strike meeting held in Chicago on the 3rd May 1886 that was fired upon by police in an attempt to disperse the workers that the following day at an ‘indignation protest’ in Chicago’s ‘Haymarket Square’ into which a bomb was lobbed among the crowd, killing and wounding a number of policemen. Although the bomber was never named or identified, eight ‘workers rights’ protesters were arrested, four were later executed while one committed suicide in his jail cell. In solidarity and commemoration of this sad event an international labour congress held in 1899 adopted May 1st as a date to remember the ‘Haymarket Martyrs’ and thus the Labour Movement gained unstoppable momentum throughout the developed western world. Here in NZ the agitation towards better working conditions had started with Samuel Parnell, an early settler to NZ in the 1840s, a carpenter by trade who refused to labour any longer than 8 hours a day, a concept that soon infected the rest of the colony. By the 1890s the powerful Maritime Council called for a ‘labour demonstration day’ and duly 28th October was chosen. However, after a good start these ‘day’s’ soon degenerated into opportunities for various businesses to advertise their wares and services among the ‘Labour Day’ parades that were held to mark the occasion and it wasn’t long before the more militant unions and social activists called for a ‘May Day’ rather than a Labour Day to be recognised as the ‘Workers’ Day’ but it failed to gain wide acceptance.
In the intervening years since the beginning of the Labour Movement, in the Celtic and Germanic lands of the north, in the nooks and crannies of Great Britain and Europe to this day the May Pole is still danced around by the young of the community at the ‘May Fayr’, ‘May Baskets’ of sweets or flowers are still left anonymously on doorsteps, Morris Dancing Men still jingle their way around village squares whilst young ladies still aspire to becoming the year’s ‘May Queen’.

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