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Lange: May Day

05/01/12 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(Host) It’s the first day of May, a date that commentator, writer and storyteller Willem Lange notes has taken on many meanings over the past 2000 years.

(Lange) It’s May Day, a very confused holiday. So many events and causes are hung on it that it resembles the Keystone Kops’ squad car.

Its origins are agricultural. Between the spring equinox and midsummer, it’s planting time, a good excuse for festivals. The Romans celebrated the feast of Flora, goddess of flowers. Gaelic pagans knew it as Beltane, a celebration of fertility. My sober Ohio college recreated it well into the 1950s, with a dozen nubile, barefooted Presbyterian nymphs in yards of diaphanous tulle and flower garlands weaving crepe-paper ribbons around a Maypole.

Early Christians, who often stole pagan rituals, introduced Walpurgisnacht, dedicated to Saint Walpurga, an 8th-century missionary and the first female author of Europe.

During the English Commonwealth, Cromwell, exemplifying H.L. Mencken’s description of puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” banned May Day celebrations. The Restoration of Charles II restored them, as well, along with other pleasures.

Later, it got more interesting. During the Industrial Revolution, differences between ownership and labor widened dramatically. The idea of collective bargaining sprouted. A stonemasons’ strike in Australia in 1856 gained them an eight-hour work day. Then in 1886 a strike by workers in Chicago grew tense after police shot and killed four strikers at the McCormick Reaper plant. Leaders of the strike called for a rally in Haymarket Square on May 4.

Toward the end of the rally, as police moved in to break it up, somebody threw a bomb. The cops opened fire; about a dozen people were killed. Leaders of the workers were tried, and some hanged, not for murders, but for anarchistic beliefs. On the gallows, the condemned men sang the Marseillaise, at the time the anthem of international labor.

As a result, May First became a day dedicated to workers’ rights. The United States, fearing the influence of Socialism and the French labor hymn, Internationale, set aside the first weekend in September instead. In 1921, pressured by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Congress gave May Day the catchy title of Americanization Day. In 1958, during the Red Scare, it became Loyalty Day, which it remains – though few of us are aware of it.

You can hear the Internationale sung on YouTube. The tune is catchy and the lyrics captivating – especially if you’re a downtrodden worker. But to an employer it can sound somewhat ominous. It translates as:

This is the final struggle
Let us pull together, and tomorrow
The Internationale unites the human race.

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work!
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