May Day! May Day! And Mayday!
May Day 1: Our most common understanding of May 1 being a holiday is that it represents a movement for the establishment of the rights of workers. Very few of us may know that the turmoil during the first few days of May in 1886 took place in far away Chicago, and that more police officers were killed than civilians in the culminating incident that came to be known as the Haymarket Affair. And most of us would be dumbfounded to learn that the killings took place on May 3 and 4 (huh?) and not on May 1.
The significance of Pahela May is that in October 1884, socialist and communist trade union federations of the USA and Canada, against the backdrop of economic slowdown, declared that from May 1, 1886, the eight-hour work day would be effective, and a general strike by workers was on the card. On the other hand, the powerful employers were not ready to give up the practice of longer hours.
The planned general strike had remained largely non-violent. However, on May 3, a clash between strikers and strike-breakers of the Chicago's McCormick Harvesting Machine factory (the latter protected by 400 policemen - typical) led to police firing (also typical under repressed conditions) and the death of two McCormick workers; the workers claimed several more deaths.
The following day, demonstrations were planned against the killings. A rally was also proceeding peacefully at Haymarket Square until some unidentified person threw an explosive at the police, who retaliated with gunfire. In the ensuing conflict, seven policemen and at least four civilians were left dead, and several others were injured.
Union leaders continued to hold their movement by staging demonstrations every 1st May, and in 1904, the International Socialist Conference in Amsterdam urged "all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace" as well as for "the proletarian organisations of all countries to stop work on 1 May, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers." So here we are joining much of the rest of the world in celebrating International Workers' Day, also known as Labour Day in some countries.
One hundred and thirty years on, not all but millions of workers across the world, including Bangladesh are toiling for over eight hours a day.
May Day 2: May Day is also the spring festival in Europe and North America, marked by revelry and merrymaking, not necessarily only around the maypole or by crowning of the May Queen. Once upon a time, May baskets of sweets and flowers were left anonymously at the doorstep of neighbours, but with rising price and anonymity turning to be a social hazard, the tradition went out of vogue. Some opine, however, that souring neighbourly relations during the rest of the year was the cause of its demise.
The Spring May Day festivities have their roots in the Roman era in European pagan cultures. Considered the first day of summer, a delight in cold countries, the celebrations were in the earliest days based on cult religious rituals. The occasion became more of a secular and social carnival as Christianity took over Europe.
Germany, for one, celebrates May Day as one among several days of merriment with religious connotation to commemorate St. Walburga, considered to be the saint who ushered Christianity to Deutschland.
Religion did re-emerge among 18thcentury Roman Catholics, who celebrated May Day, in fact the entire month of May, by consecrating their Blessed Virgin Mary, whose crowned image featured in 'works of art and school skits'. The Catholics also dedicate a feast on the first day of May to St. Joseph the Worker, a carpenter and their patron saint of workers. First of May gained import when in 1955 Pope Pius XII chose the day to replace another feast to St. Joseph "as a counterpoint to the communist International Workers Day celebrations".
'Religion' continued to make grounds when neo-pagans returned in the late 20th century to recreate traditions and observe May Day as a pagan religious festival.
Mayday 3: While Spring festivals are occasions of joy, political issues centring May Day can still signal trouble (the controversy of joy vs. sorrow remains), which brings us to Mayday, a radio telephone distress signal used by ships and aircrafts across the language barrier.
With multilingual international air traffic increasing, there arose the need for pilots to voice-communicate with ground staff during any emergency by using a single word that was easily understood. The task of finding that golden SOS-substitute fell on Croydon Airport's Frederick Stanley Mockford. The London airport's senior radio officer came up with "m'aider" which in French means "help me". This was 1923, when the traffic Mockford was dealing with at Croydon was mainly to and from Le Bourget Airport in Paris. Mayday became the official voice distress call four years later when it was adopted by the International Radiotelegraph Convention of Washington "to communicate the most serious level of distress, such as with life-threatening emergencies."
May Day rallies can go wrong because of non-achievement by workers generally around the world or due to the controversy of joy vs. sorrow. May Day celebrations can turn sour if an overzealous reveller breaks a maypole while trying to scale it. Aviation people need to repeat the word three times in a row, 'Mayday, Mayday, Mayday' lest their call is mistaken as just another day in the year.
The writer is a practising Architect at BashaBari Ltd., a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.