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May Day in Folklore: New Ideas and Mischievous Spirits

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On May 4th, 1886, a riot broke out after a bomb exploded during a union rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. The workers had been on strike since the 1st, half a million strong across the whole country and demanding the eight-hour day. It became known as the Haymarket Affair and is largely credited as the impetus for May 1st being celebrated as International Workers Day.

Thirty years earlier, on April 21st, 1856, stonemasons all across Melbourne downed tools and walked off the job, proclaiming they would, from now on, be enjoying the fruits of “eight hours work, eight hours rest and eight hours for what we will”. It was celebrated on the 12th of May by a grand march from Carlton Gardens to Cremorne Gardens in Richmond, followed by dinner, speeches, games, festivities and fireworks.

And on May 1st, 870, Saint Walpurga, a Christian missionary, was canonised by Pope Adrian II for her lifelong battle against the evils of witchcraft. The night of April 30th and the day of May 1st are celebrated in her honour, as Walpurgisnacht and the Feast of St. Walpurga, respectively. It is a night to light bonfires and sing loudly, to ward away witches and “evil” spirits. 

Are these things related? The first two: definitely. The Americans were certainly aware of the struggle and victory of the Australian workers who won the eight-hour day. But what was it about that period of late April to early May that twice upended the social and economic status quo so radically? 

Maybe Saint Walpurga has the answer. 

New Ideas Creep Into Our World

Before 870 AD, the day we call May Day was traditionally known as Beltane to ancient pagans. You might be more familiar with its counterpart at the opposite end of the calendar: Samhain, or Halloween. Both days were thought to be the times when the veil between our world and the world of the spirits was at its thinnest. They would sneak in through cracks in the boundary and spread mischief. New forces would enter our world from other places. New ideas. New energy. Maybe we should take a closer look at the movement of the stars? Maybe we don’t have to suffer and toil while the noblemen and the clergy feast? Maybe we should have an eight-hour day?  

What might be more likely than spirits intervening is that distribution, in an agrarian society, becomes more noticeable during times of plenty. When times are good - the fields, bountiful - and the landlord is soon going to come and take away a large portion of the spoils, this is a stark reminder that the established order isn’t working in your favour. You’re also brimming with summertime swagger and not going straight back to your home immediately after work to seek warmth. All of this could be a recipe for some “new ideas” that the ruling class don’t want you to have. 

It was certainly a feasting season for stonemasons in 1856. The gold rush had attracted the world's working men to a newly rich colony, but few stayed in Melbourne when the stones in Ballarat held such promise. The terms of trade were in favour of the workers, and they took advantage by pressing for world-first conditions. Conditions that had been dreamed up by Chartist rebels a world away, descended from the farmers and labourers who lit bonfires in May. 

Pagan celebrations, fostering a sense of community outside the rule of the Crown and the Church, could certainly not be allowed to continue. The pagans had to be brought into line somehow, and it started by taking away their spiritual connections to the land. Beltane was, effectively, cancelled. 

Witchcraft is Just Feminine Rebellion

Hundreds of years of hindsight with countless examples can pretty concretely show us that “witch” was just the name given to groovy women who didn’t put up with the church’s shit. They were harassed, run out of town, beaten and burned. Most of the time it was because they began practicing medicine and early forms of science. We’d know them today as radicals and we would welcome them as our sisters and comrades. 

Saint Walpurga was canonised for her tireless campaigning against witchcraft. It makes sense that the annual celebration in her honour (after her death) was set for the 1st of May: it was meant to erase the pagan celebration of nature and new life. Only God could create things anew. To praise nature (or, God forbid, to study and learn from it) was heresy. 

What ended up happening, however, was that many communities would profess to be celebrating in honour of St. Walpurga but would, in fact, only be lighting their bonfires in a continued observation of the same traditions they had always held. Now they were underground: not just practicing their beliefs but actively resisting. And in this way they are our spiritual ancestors.

All of This is Fantasy

We do not believe in witches and spirits in the strict sense. What we do believe in is challenging the prevailing order of things. We believe in rebellion. 

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What is socialism if not a new way of looking at the order of things? A belief that the world could be different than it is? Radical ideas might not come from beyond the veil, but they come from individuals and communities brave enough to resist unjust rule.

The world has a natural rhythm of birth, death and rebirth. We can see it in history just as clear as we can see it in the changing of the seasons.

So, as we do every May Day, we should sing our union songs loud and proud. But maybe this year think about this one particular line, from Solidarity Forever:

We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong

Solidarity forever…

On May 4th, 1886, a riot broke out after a bomb exploded during a union rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. The workers had been on strike since the 1st, half a million strong across the whole country and demanding the eight-hour day. It became known as the Haymarket Affair and is largely credited as the impetus for May 1st being celebrated as International Workers Day.

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