Friday, May 3, 2013

May Day

How did it become political? From History Today:

With May Day, the labour movements of different countries were both 'inventing' it as their tradition and also acquiring for themselves a very old tradition with deep roots going back into pre-Christian times. It was a tradition resonant with imagery, and one that in the past has appealed to a range of political and cultural outlooks. Hence there was an ambiguity in the situation. The workers' May Days were part of a counter-culture to that of established society, yet this alternative culture derived much from the traditions and practices of the old order that the labour movement sought to supercede. Thus in many European Catholic areas May Day processions, festivals and imagery frequently drew on saints days' festivals.

In Britain the old May Day had mixed connotations, some popular – and unruly in the eyes of the 'respectable', but many conservative or sentimental. Maypoles had been banned in the mid-seventeenth century. With the return of the monarchy in 1660 the Maypoles and the May festivities were restored as part of the attempt to create a nationalistic 'Merrie England'. The boisterous and genuinely popular May Day festivities had mostly faded away by the start of Queen Victoria's reign. But there were nostalgic revivals later, inspired by the enthusiasm of poets such as Charles Tennyson and William Barnes, writers and artists such as John Ruskin, or by Conservatives influenced by 'Young England' notions. In the 1890s quaint May Day processions, more in the nature of pageants than living folk festivals, took place at the same time as the mass workers' demonstrations. The Illustrated London News in May 1891 printed sketches of both the huge labour demonstration in Hyde Park and also a medieval and Tudor periods costumed May Day procession that took place at St. Mary Cray, Kent. (Read entire article.)

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