Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

The First of May…

May Day — not to be confused with the internationally used distress signal, “mayday.”

Who knew? Remember that I did not grow up in New England, and therefore had a childhood devoid of May breakfasts and May Day baskets of treats shared with family, friends and neighbors. And I was not raised in the Catholic faith, so I never had the opportunity to crown a statue of the Virgin Mary with a wreath of flowers or celebrate the day as a feast day for the Catholic patron saint of workers, St. Joseph.

It wasn’t until I went to college in Southern Pennsylvania, that I met the festive side of May Day with all its pageantry. Full disclosure—it was a liberal arts, all-woman’s college. Perhaps the highlight of the spring each year was the election of the Campus May Queen and her court, all of whom in the English tradition would be crowned with flowers and proceed to do the traditional May Day dance, complete with multicolored ribbons streaming from the hastily constructed may pole in the center of campus.

I’d had very little experience in electing queens. I do remember coming home from kindergarten, finding Mother in the kitchen ironing while she listened to a radio broadcast of the crowning of the very young Queen Elizabeth II. I also, of course, witnessed, albeit from afar, the crowning each year of the homecoming king and queen and the king and queen of the spring proms.

However, the selection and the crowning of the May Queen and her court made these early highly envious selections pale by comparison. This process also, I only witnessed from afar. There were certain criteria for these honors that unfortunately, like those required for homecoming and prom queen, I did not possess. In college the criteria expanded from just having a high level of attractiveness and popularity. These young women of the court almost always included the leadership of the student body—those who ran student government, were the best athletes, sat on the judicial committee, starred in our theatre and dance productions, and of course, were good students. Except for occasional A’s and high B’s, I met none of these requirements. I never did get to wear those beautiful white gowns, bend over to receive my wreath of daisies, or dance around the may pole. I’ll admit I would have loved to be the center of all that pomp and ceremony—just once.

Attending graduate school in Rhode Island introduced me to the traditions of May Breakfasts (most often hosted by enterprising churches and non-profit organizations), and the traditional May baskets that were almost always made of discarded margarine cups, creatively disguised with crepe paper, containing fudge, cookies, and sometimes flowers.

Nowhere in this rather disjointed education in the traditions of May Day did I have a glimpse of the roots and historical significance of these celebrations. Records of events dating back to Roman times and in countries all over the world are evidence that May 1, or early spring, included celebrations of the awaking of the earth and a celebration of fertility. Originally associated with religious themes, as Europe became more Christianized, these evolved into more secular forms of celebration.

Perhaps many of us forget, or never knew, the very serious side of May Day. I do vaguely remember from the early 1950s watching the small black and white screen of my grandparent’s television as tiny images of thousands of tanks, weapons and soldiers paraded through Red Square in Russia on May 1 in a demonstration of the power of the Soviet Union, its communist philosophy, and its grounding in the words of Marx and Engels, “Workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains!” All of which I failed to understand as a pre-teen.

The real surprise to those of us who are not familiar with the labor movement in the United States would be that the May Day labor tradition is not rooted in the Soviet Union, but in 1886 in Chicago during what is known as the Haymarket affair.

As socialist organizations began to develop in many of our major cities, often attracting anarchists into the fold, agitation to address poor working conditions in factories, 12 to 16 hour workdays, and low wages, peaked. Large numbers of workers in Chicago led a crusade to implement an 8-hour workday. The crusade spread rapidly across the country. It is reported that on May 1, 1886, “more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses walked off their jobs on the first May Day celebration in history.” Worried that the walkout would turn as violent as a previous railroad workers strike that saw police and soldiers kill hundreds of striking workers, Pinkerton guards and police braced for the worst. For over six months, confrontations with striking workers occurred in the streets, resulting in several deaths and many injuries.

Following a call for a public meeting to confront the issue of police brutality, chaos erupted in Haymarket Square. Language became inflammatory, shots were fired, and a bomb was thrown, resulting in several fatalities on both sides. Anarchists were arrested, trials labelled as mockeries of justice took place, individuals were hung, and one prisoner committed suicide.

“In 1889, the International Socialist Conference declared that, in commemoration of the Haymarket affair, May 1 would be an international holiday for labor…” now celebrated in almost 70 countries around the world. However, it should be noted that during the Eisenhower-McCarthy red scare decade of the 1950’s, in an effort to distance the US from what was perceived as the Communist Threat, the president declared May 1, “Loyalty Day”—“a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States of America and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.”

So, on this May 1, as you stand in line for eggs, bacon and pancakes at your favorite May Day breakfast venue and fill that May basket for your neighbor, take a moment to reflect on the long history and diverse and multiple origins of this special day.

Note: In case anyone needs a May Queen, I still have my white wedding gown from my first marriage tucked away under the bed. I’ll be waiting for an invitation!