Growing up in a communist (or rather socialist) country, May Day became “Workers Day” and was the day when we all were supposed to attend big gatherings in our towns – assuring the ruling elite that we where all happy with the life as it was – despite shortages in so many areas and no freedom of speech or travel. Hypocrisy at its best!
I vividly remember having to paint big banners with true communist slogans – usually aimed at the capitalist neighbours or the US – I won’t repeat those here but lets just say the brain washing did not work – at least not on me:-)
The thing is – of the 10 years in school I only ever attended one of those demonstrations – the one time my parents could not find an excuse for my brother and me not to go (it was after all compulsory). We where lucky – my mum’s birthday is – Today – the first of May and her dad’s on the 2. – and my granddad lived 400km away from us so we always had a reason to travel there and because May Day was always a public holiday – we “needed to use that long weekend”. Good excuse in my books and I am forever grateful that my parents made this system defying decision for us.
The one time I could not get out we had to line up in a side street, school after school, with flags and banners and red Carnations in our hands (the flower of the communist party). Waiting and waiting until it was our turn to walk past the big stage where the leaders of the town and the ruling party where sitting – every couple of years Honecker or his wife would be there and then it was a special privilege to walk past them… oh boy!
It wasn’t until well after the re-unification of Germany that the younger generations of us (post war) fond out that May Day in fact has its origins in the Pagan World – the Romans celebrated a similar day in late April and we as Germanic Tribes would have celebrated Walpurgis Night on th 30th of April into the 1st of May – vividly described by our national Poet Goethe in his best known work “Faust”.
Now when you drive through Germany – east and west – you’ll see big bonfires on those nights leading up to the first of May and on May Day some villages have the “Dance around the May Tree” – they do that in Sweden and Norway too I remember. It’s a festival to bring the community together and for the young people perhaps to meet their future partner during the Dance. It’s a very happy occasion and for many villages that is the biggest day and night of their year.
Of course there are many other cultures and countries who also celebrate this day or any day leading up to it for similar reasons – the start of summer or the end of winter or the start of the planting season etc.
Here in New Zealand, Maori celebrate the New Year around June – when the star cluster of Matariki (the Pleiades) can be seen the winter sky just before dawn. Traditionally, it was a time for remembering the dead, and celebrating new life.
So here we are – Happy May Day to everybody for whatever it means to you!