01 May 2008

may day

In transit yesterday while running some errands, I passed a parish grammar school where students were practicing their dance around the Maypole, making sure the boy and girls were alternating rightly in order to weave the ribbons down around the pole itself. Seeing the children reminded me that today is May Day, an intriguing holiday since it marks both the beginning of summer in ancient calendars as well as celebrating the achievements of the international labor movement in securing the rights of workers.

This year it also happens to coincide, in the United States, with the "National Day of Prayer," always the first Thursday in May. And then there's the peculiar coincidence that "mayday" is a distress call, deriving from the French "m'aider," meaning roughly "help me."

While I think the convention of children dancing with ribbons only dates back a couple of centuries, Maypoles themselves - and dances around them - have a much deeper background, at least among northern European peoples. These celebrations were tied to the beginning of the summer season, as the first of May is roughly a midpoint between the vernal equinox and summer solstice. In older northern European reckonings, summer fell equally on both sides of the solstice, making May first its start and the solstice itself, on 20 or 21 June, the celebration of "Midsummer."

I've enjoyed dancing around a Maypole a few times, though I expect my English-speaking Protestant ancestors would disapprove. Maypole dances were often a Sunday afternoon recreation and, given their roots in pagan seasonal festivals and the practice of mixed-sex dancing and general carousing, the strictly sabbatarian Puritans and others sought to have such celebrations suppressed. Since Maypoles were relatively permanent fixtures in many towns - and their theft a source of rivalry between villages - such suppression involved the cutting up and burning of such symbols of social identity and celebration.

The connection of May Day to the labor movement is more an accident of history. In 1884, the North American union that eventually became the AFL had voted that 1 May 1886 would be the day by which the 8-hour work day would be achieved and called for a general strike on that day in order to secure it. Previous labor activity in North America, the UK, and Europe had forced many countries to pass laws limiting work hours in factories to 12 and 10 hours.

When 1 May 1886 arrived, there was a general strike and public demonstrations in many large cities across North America. One of the largest was in Chicago, including a March of up to 80,000 laborers. But in Chicago things quickly spiraled out of control over the next days. When striking workers tried to prevent replacement workers from crossing picket lines, the police intervened, killing several strikers. Then a gathering was called for 4 May at Haymarket.

Though the gathering had been peaceful, it devolved into a riot when, as police attempted to disperse the crowd, a bomb went off and police opened fire. When the dust settled, several officers and workers were dead and dozens injured. Eight organizers of the rally were arrested and put on trial. Of those, one was sentenced to 15 years, two to life in prison, one committed suicide in jail, and four were executed by hanging. In 1893 the Illinois governor reviewed the case, found all the men innocent, and granted pardons to those surviving.

With these martyrs for the cause of organized labor, stemming ultimately from the 1 May general strike, May Day quickly became a central day of labor action internationally, beginning in 1890 with a decision of the Second International. Since then the day has remained a memorial for all those fought for workers rights in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and, in general, to celebrate organized labor. The confluence of May Day with traditional European celebrations of summer made for a natural bent toward festivity.

This year, as I mentioned, it also coincides with the US National Day of Prayer, which was created by a resolution of Congress in 1952. Their website contains many more details. It seems to me that this year, as it coincides with May Day, several items might especially come to mind for prayer - our "mayday" to the Lord who can rescue us, no matter how dire our need.

First, insofar as May Day marks the beginning of a new time or season, we can recall that this is a time of transition for many people across the nation: college students finishing up their terms and seeking summer service, employment, travel, and internships; and families considering their summer activities and schedules once the kids finish school in June.

Second, the coming seasons of the year, going into fall, are part of an election year. The primaries are winding down, national conventions of political parties are coming up, and the race to the general election will soon be underway. Candidates need good judgment, stamina, sound advisors, and a desire for just governance. Voters need discernment, as well as a sense of hope and engagement, especially when we are in the last days of an administration that has a very large measure of disapproval by the public.

Third, as a day that celebrates labor, we can consider the current downturn in our national economy, within the shifting patterns of the wider global market, and all the ways in which that is affecting workers, home owners, consumers, and other nations and peoples.
    Almighty God,
    you have so linked our lives one with another
    that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives:
    So guide us in the work we do,
    that we may do it not for self alone,
    but for the common good;
    and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor,
    make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers,
    and arouse our concern for those who are out of work;
    through Jesus Christ our Lord.
    Amen.