Last week we had a nice holiday, thanks to Labour Day. For me, it helped to make up for the lack of a spring break; it’s nice to break the routine, even if it’s only for two days. As May 1 was coming up, though, I found myself involved in many conversations with the heading, “Why is this a holiday anyway?”—which became the topic for this week.
May 1 has three names, or personalities. Firstly, it is Labour Day, as stated above. Secondly, it is International Workers’ Day, as determined by the Second International. These two are usually synonymous. Its third and oldest identity is “May Day.” (For those who are interested, I would also like to note that the first of May is the day that Czech composer Antonin Dvorak passed away in 1904 at the age of 63.)
It’s probably best to look at the meanings of May 1 chronologically. First and foremost, the day marks the arrival of summer. Many people assume that it celebrates spring, which is the season that now coincides with the date. (Thank you, global temperature change.) In fact, almost all cultures in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate it as the beginning of summer, with spring reckoned to start all the way back on February 1. This actually helps clear something up for me; in elementary school, we were taught that the season of summer spans three months, June, July and August. So how is June 21 “midsummer,” as it is often called? The old notion of summer starting in May makes much more sense. It’s also a little strange to think how something as ubiquitous as a season can change so much—sort of like looking up at the night sky and realizing that the star you see had probably burned out by the time its light reached the Earth. Even the stars, which were thought never to change, by which people navigated for centuries (even millenia), are not as reliable as we think.
On a less depressing note, which smoothly connects us back to our original topic, May Day is the occasion of many pagan festivals in this hemisphere. It is still celebrated in England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Bulgaria and Romania, to name but a few places. The weather is thought to always be good on this date, allowing people to celebrate, so it has an almost divine significance attributed to it. Not many symbols are associated with the occasion, which is surprising for a holiday that is so widespread. However, in France at least, the day is celebrated with bouquets of lilies-of-the-valley, a flower that signifies the return of happiness.
Once this date merged with Labour Day, it became less popular, even forbidden, to celebrate it. This became especially true in the US after the Second World War, since supporting the labor movement was discordant for a capitalist country entering the Cold War against Soviet Russia. It wasn’t a coincidence that May 1 was chosen as International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day. But as far as I know, it doesn’t have anything to do with May Day. It is connected to the Haymarket affair.
In October 1884, labor unions decided that May 1, 1886, should be the day of a worldwide rally in support of the eight-hour workday movement. Until this point, the rights of workers were widely disergarded (let’s say nonexistent), so that they were often working 14 hours per day. The eight-hour workday was proposed to regulate working hours in order to ensure workers’ health and safety: eight hours designated for work, eight for recreation and eight for rest. The day for the rally had to be decided upon 19 months in advance because the message had to be sent around the world (lest we forget, Twitter had not yet been invented). At the time of this decision, it was thought that the eight-hour day would have become universal by then. When it became clear that this would not in fact be the case, strikes and peaceful protests were also organized on the same day. So, on May 1, 1886, many large industrial cities witnessed manifestations of this worldwide rally—an almost impossible feat for the time. This continued until May 4, when something happened to change the course of the whole movement.
Unfortunately, in Chicago, a bomb detonated amidst the crowd. The police acted, the crowd reacted, and the day ended with 11 deaths and more than 130 people injured. The fact that 7 of the 11 dead were police set back the official progress of the labor movement; however, the seemingly overwhelming opposition against it actually strengthened the resolve of the members, and the movement eventually prevailed. May 1 became a day to comemmorate the Haymarket massacre and a beacon for the rights of workers. The last words of the union speaker August Spies before his execution for conspiracy to commit murder during the Haymarket Affair are, I think, powerful: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”
Silence is somehow very powerful. I thought the same thing when I was at a panel about residential architecture, and in her opening remarks the head of the panel used the term “silence of the masses” in connection with houses. The phrase really stayed with me, because in architecture, as in any other field, the “ordinary” part of the profession’s work is often ignored. We see the few museums and concert halls, maybe even the few “landmark” houses. We remember the breakthroughs, but forget about them when they become standardized. But their silence is what makes them powerful. Le Corbusier’s or Mies van der Rohe’s ideas would not have survived so long if they had not been put into practice worldwide. The direct current of electricity would have had no significance if its use (and, subsequently, that of the alternating current) had not spread to every house. The silence of the masses is actually the loudest thing in the world.