6 Things You Didn’t Know About May Day

May Day

History is awash in amazing dates, some of which are as controversial as they are confusing, even contradictory. Some of the dates have been inspired by actual events while others would lead you all the way to obscurity if you were to trace their origins. “May Day” is one expression that over the years got robed in garments of many colours. You would agree that more people in recent times are more likely to identify with it as a day to recognise and celebrate workers’ contribution to economies across the globe. That is not wrong, but there are more things to the first day of May than the celebrations make us believe. Be that as it may, you are in for a big deal today as you will learn various unpopular stories that surround this amazing date in human history.  So, what are those fun sides of May Day that will blow your mind away? Let’s dive right into it.

-At Croydon Airport in 1923, Officer Frederick Stanley Mockford was charged with the responsibility of inventing a commonly understood word by all pilots and maritime personnel in times of danger. Mockford came up with “mayday,” which is believed to have been inspired by the French expression m’aidez meaning, “help me.” The full French version is Venez m’aidez, literally translated to “Come and help me.” Ever since, anytime airplanes or ships run into an emergency, they radio the people at the base repeating the word “mayday” as many times as possible. You may have noticed that “may” and “day” when used in distress do not keep to word boundary rules that we see take effect between “may” and “day” when used in another sense. “Mayday” and “May Day” don’t therefore mean the same thing. Just watch out for the space between them anytime you see them used. The only problem is you may not be able to distinguish between the two in an utterance. Even at that, the circumstances of usage would signify the appropriation and meaning. 

– May Day is the first day of the fifth month in a typical Gregorian calendar. It is a historical date set aside for special recognition and memorialisation of labour movement sparked off by the yearning of workers to have an eight-hour work day. American Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions were tired of the excesses of capitalists in the early 19th century. The work environment was hostile to workers in many aspects. Workers were working 10 – 12 hours a day, six days a week. They therefore demanded that an eight-hour work day legislation should come to effect in 1886. Noncompliance to the demand resulted in nationwide strike and the famous 1886 Chicago Haymarket protest. This riot inspired many others of its kind all over Europe where workers came down at powers that be, demanding a better life. On the 14th of July 1889, leaders of the workers’ rights movement (International Congress of Socialist Parties) proclaimed May 1st of every year the “Workers’ Day of International Unity and Solidarity,” at a conference in Paris, France. The first formal celebrations of May Day thus happened on the first of May 1890. This does not mean an instant total adoption of the eight-hour workday or better life for workers all over the world but it significantly moved the Labour legislations in many countries to the next level of debate. Capitalists and governments adjusted over time. And yes, workers’ woes continue but constant agitations of Labour Unions and continuous legislations have kept the “bosses” in check.

-May Day is also known as Worker’s Day. Since it is a day for appreciating the struggles and achievements of workers through history, it is expected not to raise an eyebrow if it is also daubed Labour Day, after all, it is the day of workers. The funny irony here is that Labour Day in the USA and Canada does not fall on the first of May. It is celebrated on the first Monday of September. This was already the practice in some states of the U.S before President Grover Cleveland backed it up with a legislation in 1891. There is a clash of the Mcguires where the face of the Labour Day movement is concerned in the United States. Some documents reveal that the general secretary of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and the co-founder of the American Federation of Labour, Peter J. McGuire, in 1882 suggested that a day be set aside for a “general holiday for the labouring classes” in celebration of the ones “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” It has been argued that Matthew Maguire should be the face of Labour Day Holiday in the U.S because he was the one that recommended that date when he was the Central Labour Union secretary in New York. An article in Morning Call Newspaper (Paterson, New Jersy) corroborates the claim thus, “The souvenir pen should go to Alderman Matthew Maguire of this city, who is the undisputed author of Labor Day as a holiday.”

-Australia and New Zealand also have different dates assigned to the celebration of their workers. This is connected of course to how the holiday came to be in these countries. Australia particularly has a special May Day history. The Labour Day holiday in Australia used to be known as “Eight Hours Day.” Australian States celebrate the day on different dates because they achieved their eight-hour workday on totally different dates. In Queensland and Northern Territory, the holiday is observed on the first Monday in May. In Victoria and Tasmania, it is celebrated on the second Monday in March. In New South Wales, South Australia, and ACT, the day is celebrated on the first Monday in October while in Western Australia, the holiday happens on the first Monday in March. In New Zealand, Labour Day holiday is observed on the fourth Monday of October.

-May Day was a pagan holiday in different parts of Europe.  First of May continues to be celebrated across European countries. People dance around a May Pole, crown a May Queen, mostly in celebration of the end of winter and the beginning of Summer. Modernity may have whittled the flower of the celebrations now as people who celebrate in such a dramatic way are more likely to be called pagans. But the truth remains that, countries in Europe still celebrate the first day of May with traditional tones in mind far away from the current colouring of the commemoration of workers’ struggles and gains. Gaelic people of Scotland and Ireland were famous for the “Day of fire” celebration. It was then known in the Middle Ages as “Beltane.” They made bonfires and danced round them at night. In England, a young tree was often erected and decorated. People danced around the tree with other beauty paraphernalia of flowers and ribbons in celebration of new spring time. The celebrations carried the same tones across Finland, Germany, Czech Republic, Whales and other countries with slightly different methods of enactment.

-Like many other African countries, Workers’ Day in Nigeria takes the shape of the global May Day celebration as it relates to the observance of the pains and gains of workers. The first state in Nigeria to recognise the day as a public holiday was Kano State, as led by the People’s Redemption Party (1980). On the first of May 1981, it became a national holiday. 

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