What are the origins of the May Day holiday?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 April, 2006, 12:00am

FYI: What are the origins of the May Day holiday?

For citizens of the former Soviet Union and China, May Day must surely be associated with massive military parades through the streets and media propaganda hailing the glorious contribution of the world's workers. But the socialist-state custom of commandeering May 1 to celebrate the glories of the working classes is a relatively new phenomenon; just over a century old.

The tradition of setting May Day aside for a giant street party, however, can be traced back more than a millennium. The Celtic pagan festival known as Beltane celebrated the arrival of summer, ushering in longer days and, therefore, plenty of time for harvesting, and, on this day at least, pastimes such as dressing up in fine clothing, dancing a merry jig around a maypole and sinking flagons of ale were common.

The celebration thrived until well into the latter part of last century and is kept alive in tradition-bound communities throughout the English-speaking world. It was eagerly looked forward to in British primary schools, children donning new summer outfits for a sprightly circuit around a flagpole (the maypole for the day), which sported long, gaily coloured ribbons.

Anyone living in a socialist state during that time - or in the few remaining today, for that matter -

would probably associate May Day with goose-stepping rather than twinkle-toed tripping. In Moscow, during the Cold War, it meant annual Red Square parades of Soviet military might; the tanks and rocket-launchers were a reminder to the population of the state's power.

The spectacle also offered foreign spooks the opportunity to have a gander at the enemy's latest military hardware.

Despite its strong contemporary associations with Marxist-Leninist states, the practice of linking May Day to workers' rights actually began in the United States, back in 1886. Striking Chicago workers, agitating for an eight-hour day, clashed with police, leaving at least two of their number dead. A bomb explosion and the ensuing melee the next day killed eight policemen, resulting in the execution of four trade unionists for murder. To commemorate those momentous events, the International Working Men's Association declared it a workers' holiday and called for a red flag to be flown to represent the bloodshed.

The same flag, with the addition of five gold stars, the big one representing the Communist Party, will be flying over all Hong Kong public buildings tomorrow ... and every other day.