Why we celebrate May Day

The Dane John Gardens during the City Sound Project in the Park over the May Bank Holiday weekend

It’s May Day today. Except, of course, that it isn’t: today is just a Bank Holiday which falls on the first Monday in May.

May Day proper was last Tuesday, May 1, which is when it’s celebrated across Europe and much of the USA. So why are – some of us at least – having a day off today?

The answer lies in your typical British – or more exactly English, since it’s not a holiday in Scotland – compromise.

May Day proper is of course associated with a celebration of Spring and its fertility. It’s a wholly traditional thing, with most of the ribald festivities that take place relating to the fecundity of the earth and nature.

It’s so much fun that the Puritans banned it, which is often a recommendation, while Catholics and pagans alike have adopted it.

Dave Wilson

The survival of these rituals tells you something of a deep rooted need to celebrate the arrival of spring.

It is also, for many, International Workers Day, a celebration and rallying point for the political left since 1886.

That connection, rather than English tradition, is what dictates that we have an early spring bank holiday at all. And also why it’s on the wrong date.

The early spring bank holiday was established in 1978 by the then Labour government. But, being on its last legs, that government didn’t plump for May 1 as the date.

Instead, it followed the boringly functional English habit of having a Bank Holiday on a Monday – the first one in May.

Not only does this deprive the workers of their right to celebrate on the correct date, but it also prevents us from adopting that fine French tradition of “making the bridge” when a holiday occurs in midweek, by adding our own holidays to the bank holiday, to extend the time off to an actually useful four or five days.

Why did this happen? Because there was an Opposition in Parliament which hated the idea of International Workers’ Day, and the Callaghan government capitulated rather than pick the emotionally and politically charged May.

As a result, today – when even the Americans have a Labor Day to give thanks to the workers who create their prosperity – we in England don’t.

Indeed, so much do they hate it that the Conservatives have played with the idea of cancelling the May Day holiday altogether, and replacing it with the fake patriotism of a “Trafalgar Day” holiday.

If you know the date of Trafalgar without looking it up, you should probably be on a quiz team (it’s October 21), but in any case it is a date chosen more for its coincidence with school half term than any other obvious merit.

Why not, for example, Waterloo Day – if we really want to upset the French? Or VE day? Or VJ day? In any case, you can be sure that any replacement bank holiday would be on a Monday, too, regardless of the date, lest it disrupt the sacred business of making money.

Whichever way you look at it, there are things worth celebrating in May. There’s a very long tradition, across all sorts of beliefs, religions and political positions, of May 1 being the date for that. In many places in England there are long established and deeply loved rites and events that happen on that real May Day.

Having a holiday on the first Monday in May lacks both romance and reason. It isn’t at all the same thing symbolically as May 1, whatever your reason for celebrating it. It’s time we had a change.


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