Sunday, 1 May 2011

Save May Day

The evocative site of young girls skipping around a maypole is one of ancient tradition and innocent celebration, but it is under attack. The Tories are attempting to abolish the bank holiday. The celebration is so old that we cannot be sure of its origin. The maypole itself is common to all Germanic countries; from Sweden to England, and so is thought to originate from Germanic paganism. The pole itself is most likely a phallic fertility symbol. The Celtic peoples of Great Britain and Ireland also celebrated 1st May, which is the day of their ancient pagan ceremony, Beltane. After they converted to Christianity, the Anglo-Saxon people began celebrating Roodmas on 3rd May, a celebration of the holy cross itself. The disparate pagan and Christian May day ceremonies of the British Isles evolved over the centuries to become the secular celebration it is today.

When attending May day celebrations in modern Britain, one is less likely to encounter the quintessentially English customs of Morris dancing and maypoles than the sight of scores of communists, trade unionists and other activists marching through the streets with banners and whistles. May day’s association with revolutionary politics began in Chicago in 1886. Crowds of workers who were on general strike were fired upon by police after a demonstrator threw dynamite at them. Several policemen and demonstrators were killed at what was termed the Haymarket massacre. Left wing politicians used the massacre as a device to whip up support for the international workers movement. Further riots occurred on May day 1894 in Cleveland, Ohio, and by 1904 the International Socialist Conference in Amsterdam called for all leftist groups to demonstrate on the 1st of May.

The labour day demonstrations have traditionally been very important to communist nations such as the republic of China. European nations, particularly their conservative political parties, have tried to suppress such movements. But efforts to suppress dissent have sometimes led to restriction on celebration of traditional festivities. May Morning is an Oxford tradition that is over 500 years old. What began as a tradition of drunken students going out punting, evolved over the centuries into drunken townspeople tearing through the streets and jumping into the river. May morning was heavily policed under the New Labour government to the extent that anyone found in possession of so much as a can of shaving foam could find themselves being arrested.

David Cameron is now attempting to do away with the entire bank holiday completely. Centuries of history and heritage are to be discarded in an effort to attract tourists. Despite the fact the UK has less bank holidays than the rest of Europe, Cameron wants to scrap May day bank holiday and replace it with “UK day”, an ill-conceived and somewhat forced celebration of the national cultures that constitute the United Kingdom. UK day would be in October and is intended to extend the summer period thereby attracting tourists during the Autumn months.

Whether Mr. Cameron’s real motive was to suppress the left wing movements he is so afraid of or merely to create a new bank holiday, I don't know, but surely he could have achieved both without the need to destroy heritage and history that have survived centuries of cultural and political upheavals. A mob of Morris dancers must be dispatched to number 10, first thing on May morning. Hopefully the sounds of sticks clashing, bells jingling and the sight of middle aged men waving hankies around will bring him to his senses.

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