May Day: A day for maypoles or marches?

May Day brings to mind clashing images of celebration and injustice. Can these differing May 1 traditions be reconciled?

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
A demonstrator holds carnations during a May Day rally in Istanbul, Turkey.

For some, May 1 elicits visions of children dancing around maypoles with flowers in their hair. For others, it brings to mind the injustice currently facing workers around the globe.

So what is the focus of May Day: a day of flowers and celebration, or a day of protests and a calls for change?

Originally, May Day celebrated the coming of spring. Dancers would weave ribbons around decorated poles, a tradition that originated with European pagan spring celebrations.

In the US, throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, May Day celebrations were common. In some areas of the country, May Baskets are filled with treats and left on doorsteps for loved ones to discover. If caught leaving a May Basket, the traditional penance is a kiss.

NPR quoted the St. Louis Republic from May 1, 1900:

With the young, in rural communities especially … it is May Basket Day — when the youthful fancy manifests its turn to thoughts of love by surreptitiously leaving baskets of spring flowers on the stoop appertaining to the home of the one adored.

Once a common celebration, the tradition now plays out in some small pockets of the country. As spring festivities fade, the first of May is still observed around the world for another reason: justice.

May 1 is also International Worker’s Day, or Labour Day in some countries (in the US, Labor Day is celebrated the first Monday in September). The day marks a time where laborers around the world show solidarity, often protesting injustice, poor pay, and unfair practices in the workplace. In the US, this tradition dates back to 1886, when 200,000 workmen organized a nationwide strike on May 1. Now known as the Haymarket affair, the demonstrations grew violent in Chicago's Haymarket Square. When police were attacked with dynamite, they opened fire on demonstrators. The violence left at least 11 police and civilians dead, and dozens injured.

This year protests have escalated across the world. In Istanbul, Turkish police released tear gas and water cannons on May Day protesters in Taksim Square, a popular place of protest that saw weeks of demonstrations in 2013. Around the US, some roads were closed and commuters were told to expect delays due to protests and demonstrations.

Los Angeles activists rallied for labor and immigration rights and expanded their protests to address police brutality across the country following the unrest in Baltimore. Similar protests occurred in other cities, including Chicago, Oakland, and Seattle.

“It is important to support movements and struggles that stand up for people being singled out by the system. Right now, immigrants share that distinction with African-American youth, that we are being targeted by the system,” Miguel Paredes, the membership coordinator of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, told the Associated Press.

Is possible for May Day to capture the peace and love of its traditional history as well as its contemporary cry for change? As many were reminded by a recent photo of a Baltimore child giving police officers water, peace and protest can coexist.

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., in 1964:

Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral. I am not unmindful of the fact that violence often brings about momentary results. Nations have frequently won their independence in battle. But in spite of temporary victories, violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones … Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. Indeed, it is a weapon unique in history, which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it.

This article contains reporting from the Associated Press.

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