To celebrate their nocturnal couplings, men and women would dance around the maypole, which went back to ancient pagan fertility rituals. As Europe was Christianized, many of the pagan elements of May Day were lost, and a tamer version emerged. Many of the modern celebrations seen today have evolved from these early pagan mid-spring festivals. In northern Europe, up to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was traditionally a day particularly for the common people, and offered the opportunity for them to not only celebrate with singing, dancing, gaming, drinking and feasting, but in the process lampoon and generally thumb their peasant noses at the ruling class. This is why it was called a “day of misrule.” However, as we shall see, both church and state became alarmed at the general tenor of the May Day festivities—for both their seething paganism of the greenwood marriages and as well as their potential for social insurrection—and, thus, were suppressed and finally entirely outlawed (a fact whose significance will, no doubt, not be lost on our Santa Cruz community of May Day revelers).
May Day was traditionally a day of misrule, when the social order was inverted; when the feudal ruling classes were satirized—”the world turned upside down.” Thus priests and lords were the butt of many jokes and players called “mummers” would poke fun at the local authorities. Thus, May Day was the holiday for the common folk. It was a time when commoners let many of their frustrations about their living conditions be heard. As would be expected, the state and church didn't like this part of the holidays. They were threatened by rioters, and many priests and lords were overturned during these celebrations. Of course, as we know all too well today, the ruling powers do not take kindly to these kinds of celebrations, especially during times of popular agitation, and so the May Day celebrations were eventually outlawed, along with the phallic Maypole, by Puritan church authorities in the 1600’s and by the Catholic Church in the 1700’s. Yet the tradition still carried on in many rural areas and the trade societies still celebrated May Day until the late 18th century.
These popular, pagan-oriented May Day festivities increasingly gained a political edge after the Middle Ages, from the sixteenth century on, in what is known today as the early modern period. It is then that large numbers of people begin to use the masks and noises of their traditional festivities as a cover for armed rebellion, and to see, perhaps for the first time, the possibility of inverting hierarchy on a permanent basis, and not just for a few festive hours. The authorities of church and state reacted to the May Day festivities with alarm. Social historians of this period refer to all traditional festivities, including May Day, under the classification of “carnival” or “carnivalesque.” As one historian of carnivalesque tells us:
From the sixteenth century on, the carnivalistic assault on authority seems to become less metaphorical and more physically menacing to the elites. . . . People again and again dressed up their rebellions in the trappings of carnival: masks, even full costumes, and almost always the music of bells, bagpipes, drums. Similarly, the maypole, around which so many traditional French and English festivities revolved, became a signal of defiance and a call to action.
Well into the eighteenth century, the political aspirations of the common people were expressed, as labor historian E. P. Thompson writes of England at that time, in “a language of ribbons, of bonfires, of oaths and the refusal of oaths, of toasts, of seditious riddles and ancient prophecies, of oak leaves and of maypoles, of ballads with a political double‑entendre, even of airs whistled in the streets.” And carnivalesque historians Stallybrass and White confirm this observation: “It is in fact striking how frequently violent social clashes apparently ‘coincided’ with carnival . . . to call it a ‘coincidence’ of social revolt and carnival is deeply misleading, for . . . it was only in the late 18th and early 19th centuries—and then only in certain areas—that one can reasonably talk of popular politics dissociated from the carnivalesque at all.”
In this context, we find the pagan maypole popping up again. Although traditional festivities had been largely vitiated or expunged by the Church by the end of the eighteenth century, rural people were still in the habit of announcing their political intentions by setting up a maypole. Such maypoles, along with the traditional ribbons and flowers, served a political purpose: “to call to riotous assembly, a sort of visual alarm bell,” writes French historian Mona Ozouf, and, along with these chimes, the parading common people might bear slogans such as “No more rents.” The message was not lost on the feudal authorities, who often met the erection of maypoles with violence. Thus the traditional maypole (the fertility symbol that evolved from the world tree for the Celts and other ancient peoples), was not only was an axis mundi, or world axis in the cosmic sense, but it became the axis of popular rebellion—with its tip reaching towards the heavens it was infused with a political charge that acted as a lightening rod for political change.
On the most basic level, the Carnival was in fact the climax of a vast regional revolt. It was a rebellion against government and against taxes. The Western world experienced dozens more such “tax revolts” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, mainly in France, but also in Spain, even England. Elitist thinking at the time characterized such insurrections as the base expression of a primitive peasant class’s more savage impulses. . . . The aristocrats were exempt from taxes by privilege of birth. This incurred egalitarian wrath of the commoners, peasants, bourgeois, etc, all of whom detested taxes, but hated injustice even more. Resentment of the nobles welled up on account of taxes; the same resentment reappeared just before the French Revolution, framed in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s egalitarian thought. . . . The . . . festivities were a reminder of the days when prospective Christians buried their pagan ways in a Saturnalian outburst. . . . But Carnival also dealt with social sins or ills, on which the community unfortunately could reach no consensus. In other words, the elimination of social ills implied class struggle, with greedy notables on the one side and rebellious peasants on the other. Each group entered violently into Carnival, confronting the other with theatrical and ritual gestures leading up to the final massacre. –Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Carnival in Romans
Even as it was politicized, the pagan maypole continued to play its traditional role as a signal and centerpiece for public festivity. There is “no doubt,” according to the same French historian, “of the privileged link between the maypole and collective joy”—or, we might add, between collective joy and spontaneous uprising from below. Thus, the following account from one town in the south of France in July of 1791 can see seen as a good example of what was breaking out all over Europe. It is reported that peasants attacked weathercocks and church pews—symbols of feudal and religious authority respectively: “both with some violence and in the effusion of their joy . . . they set up maypoles in the public squares, surrounding them with all the destructive signs of the feudal monarchy.” (It should be pointed out that this type of “joy” is better understood by the French word jouissance, which means enjoyment, in terms both of rights and property, and of sexual orgasm. This is an added meaning partially lacking in the English word “enjoyment.” Moreover—and more to the point of the argument here about the carnivalesque nature [i.e., social inversion or “misrule”] of these uprisings—the discipline poststructuralism has developed the latter sense of jouissance in complex ways, so as to denote a transgressive, excessive kind of pleasure.)
By this time, the exuberance and solidarity of traditional festivities begin to look—to the nobility, as well as to the upwardly mobile businessmen and professionals who aped their manners—unseemly, vulgar, perhaps even revolting. As in the class prejudices of our own time, contempt mixes easily with fear: The “vulgar” carnival participant was, in the eyes of his social betters, also a violent lout. And to the emerging capitalist class of overlords this could not be tolerated. The middle classes had to learn to calculate, save, and “defer gratification,” and the lower classes had to be transformed into a disciplined, factory‑ready, working class—meaning far fewer holidays and the new necessity of showing up for work sober and on time, six days a week. There was money to be made from reliable, well‑regulated, human labor—in the burgeoning English textile industry, for example—and to the men who stood to make it, the old recreations and pastimes represented the waste of a valuable resource. From an emerging capitalist perspective—relentlessly focused on the bottom line—festivities had no redeeming qualities. They were just another bad habit the lower classes would have to be weaned from, like the English workers’ observance of “St. Monday” as a day to continue, or recuperate from, the weekend’s fun. Protestantism—especially in its ascetic, Calvinist form—played a major role in convincing large numbers of people not only that unremitting, disciplined labor was good for their souls, but that festivities were positively sinful, along with mere idleness. As Max Weber, the late nineteenth century sociologist and political economist, understood what was going on at this time, the repression of May Day carnivalesque festivities was a by‑product of the emergence of capitalism. Thus Calvinist Protestantism, serving as the ideological handmaiden of the new capitalism, “descended like a frost on the life of Merry Old England,” as Weber put it, destroying in its icy grip the usual festivities of the people—the maypole, the dancing, the games, and all traditional forms of group pleasure.
To the wealthy elites, carnival could only evoke what the historian Stephen J. Greenblatt describes as “the great ruling class nightmare of the Renaissance: the marauding horde, the many‑headed multitude, the insatiate, giddy, and murderous crowd.” Oddly enough this Renaissance nightmare sound curiously similar to the one feared by our own early Federalists: the unwashed and unruly democratic mob, who had nonetheless been promised by the Declaration of Independence “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Considering the irony here, it perhaps wouldn’t be too much to say that as a result of the suppression of popular May Day carnivalesque, collective pleasure and happiness themselves had eventually become politically subversive.
This is actually what the historical record suggests; there were all sorts of regional and temporal variations on the theme of carnival repression. Everywhere the general drift led inexorably away from the medieval tradition of carnival. Carnivalesque historians summarize the change in legislation:
In the long‑term history from the 17th to the 20th century there were literally thousands of acts of legislation introduced which attempted to eliminate carnival and popular festivity from European life . . . Everywhere, against the periodic revival of local festivity and occasional reversals, a fundamental ritual order of western culture came under attack—its feasting, violence, processions, fairs, wakes, rowdy spectacle and outrageous clamour were subject to surveillance and repressive control.
The loss, to ordinary people, of so many recreations and festivities is incalculable. To people who had few alternative forms of collective entertainment, it must have seemed as if pleasure itself had been declared illegal. (Indeed, some recent cultural historians, such as Riane Eisler, see this history of this type of repression as the attack on what she calls a pre-Christian “sacred pleasure.”) In other words, May Day spelled mayday-May Day for the church and state. This seventeenth-century backlash against carnivalesque, with its deep pagan elements and its inherent anti-establishment sentiments, signaled a major turning point in Western culture, a loss of something that we would not see return until the 1960s in America. Political writer Barbara Ehrenreich, in her book on “Collective History of Joy,” sums up issue the long-term effect of this carnivalesque repression:
At some point, in town after town throughout the northern Christian world, the music stops. Carnival costumes are put away or sold; dramas that once engaged a town's entire population are canceled; festive rituals are forgotten or preserved only in tame and truncated form. The ecstatic possibility, which had first been driven from the sacred precincts of the church, was now harried from the streets and public squares.
Now that I have come to mention our country, it is time to connect the previous theme of May Day to the social and political realities behind it. Most people in America know nothing of the pagan origins May Day. By the same token, most people living in America know little or are very hazy about the International Worker’s Day of May Day. Once more, since I think it’s safe to say that the knowledge of the common ancestry of the apparently separate commemorations is practically nil, I would like to suggest a connection that brings together, under the banner of an ancient pagan spring festival (especially for the common people), what we see today as two mutually exclusive celebratory events—May Day as seasonal festival and May Day as International Worker’s Day. [On the “Playlists & Images” webpage, notice the common motif of flowers and maidens for both the seasonal and worker’s May Day posters.]
We must remember that in the Middle Ages, May Day became a time for the craft guild to celebrate the patrons of their craft. The medieval May Day festivities included processions or parades that certainly included those in worker’s guilds, such as chimney sweeps with their Jack-in-the-Green. The various trade guilds celebrated feast days for the patron saints of their craft. The shoemakers guild honored St. Crispin, the tailors guild celebrated Adam and Eve. As late as the 18th century various trade societies and early craft-unions would enter floats in local parades still depicting Adam and Eve being clothed by the Tailors and St. Crispin blessing the shoemaker. The two most popular feast days for medieval craft guilds were May Day, Summer Solstice and the Feast of St. John. As trade societies evolved from guilds, to friendly societies and eventually into unions, the craft traditions remained strong into the early 19th century.
After the medieval period, trade societies and then unions celebrated May Day as their holiday. This happened because trade societies evolved from these medieval guilds into friendly societies and eventually into unions, and the craft traditions remained strong into the early nineteenth century. Thus, in London the May Fayre was transferred from Haymarket in 1686 to Mayfair. The May Fayre lasted for up to 16 days and it soon became notorious for riotous and disorderly behavior. In 1708 the May Fayre was abolished, only to be revived again with similar results. (This disorderly behavior seems to be a remnant of the organized misrule of the earlier May Day revels.)
Yet this was not the end of the unruly May Day tradition. The medieval craft and worker’s guilds, particularly through the chimney sweeps, who took Jack-in-the-Green (a forerunner of the legendary Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor) as their mascot for their May Day parades 1830, would bring the commoner’s seasonal May Day back in another form. Thus May Day surfaced again on May 1, 1886 when it became known once again as the commoner’s holiday.
The celebration of May Day as a working class holiday evolved from the struggle for the eight-hour day in the 1880’s. The Anarchists called for national strikes in the United States in order to fight for the eight-hour workday. In America, May 1 later became the holiday of trade unions after an Anarchist-lead general strike and riot in Chicago resulted in the establishment of the eight hour workday. But this came at the cost of dead in the streets. Tuesday May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago began as a rally in support of striking workers. An unknown person, most probably an agent provocateur, threw a dynamite bomb at police as they dispersed the peaceful public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of eight police officers, mostly from friendly fire, and an unknown number of civilians. In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight Anarchists were tried for murder. Four men were convicted and executed, and one committed suicide in prison, although the prosecution conceded none of the defendants had thrown the bomb. The Haymarket Massacre is generally considered significant for the origin of international May Day observances for workers, and thus the 1st of May is the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. The first international May Day (May 1, 1890) was a spectacular success. The front page of the New York World on May 2, 1890, was devoted to coverage of the event. The red flag became the symbol of the blood of working class martyrs in their battle for workers rights. May Day, which had been banned by the Church for being a holiday of the common people, had been reclaimed once again for the common people. Thus, the “Haymarket Affair” is generally considered to have been an important influence on the origin of international May Day observances for workers.
In our era, International Workers’ Day (also known as May Day) is a celebration of the international labor movement and left-wing movements, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organized by unions and other groups. It commonly sees organized street demonstrations and marches by working people and their labor unions throughout most of the world. However, this further historical connection cannot be made unless we are willing to set outside the box of our myopic corporate capitalist view of the history of American labor—a view that prevails in all too many American minds, despite the fact that May 1 is supposed to be a time to not only honor but appreciate the history and contributions of the working class. Sadly, since the people’s history of the labor movement is rarely taught in our schools, the contributions (like the eight-hour day and other worker’s rights taken for granted) and sacrifices of labor movements are lost on a large portion of the citizenry. (I emphasize sacrifices—as in martyrdom.)
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the “Wobblies”) is an international union. It was founded in Chicago in June 27, 1905 at a convention of two hundred socialists, anarchists, and radical trade unionists from all over the United States who were opposed to the policies of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). It is considered one of the most important events in the history of industrial unionism and of the American labor movement in general. The IWW contends that all workers should be united as a class and that the wage system should be abolished.
However, the IWW’s efforts were met with violent reactions from all levels of government, from company management and their agents, and groups of citizens functioning as vigilantes. This violent repression came in the form of medieval type of justice: state execution, police raids and death squads, vigilante castrations and lynchings. This was all carried out with a vengeance by the state in order to protect the interests of the corporate bosses. From the Wobblies’ perspective, the response of the state was the nothing other than the terror of open class warfare waged upon them by the corporate elite. Thus, also from the Wobblies’ point of view, the martyrdom of their fallen comrades on the home front at the hands of the capitalist ruling class where the brothers of the international working-class victims of the wars waged by the same capitalist ruling class abroad. By their logic, why should they go and fight international wars for this capitalist ruling class and kill their brothers? Hence, the IWW’s resolution to oppose foreign wars. (As we shall soon see, this anti-war them in the May Day commemoration will spill over into Memorial Day peace activities.)
Many IWW members opposed United States participation in World War I. The organization passed a resolution against the war at its convention in November 1916. This echoed the view, expressed at the IWW’s founding convention, that war represents struggles among capitalists in which the rich become richer, and the working poor all too often die at the hands of other workers. An IWW newspaper, the Industrial Worker, wrote just before the U.S. declaration of war: “Capitalists of America, we will fight against you, not for you! There is not a power in the world that can make the working class fight if they refuse.” The goal of the Wobblies was to promote worker solidarity in the revolutionary struggle to overthrow the employing class; its motto was “an injury to one is an injury to all,” which improved upon the 19th century Knights of Labor's creed, “an injury to one is the concern of all.”