Friday, April 19, 2024

THE AL GILKES COLUMN – How May Day came to be


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Like many people, I have always assumed that May Day is a celebration of workers’ rights across the world. 
I knew that somewhere in the 1800s it was associated with the struggle by workers to organize at a time when men, women and even children were still being forced to work 14, 16 and even 18 hours a day.
An “eight-hour-day movement” in the United States was what gave birth to what we celebrate today as May Day. In fact, the founding convention of the National Labour Union in 1886 passed a resolution which stated: “The first and great necessity of the present, to free labour of this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all states in the American union.”
But it is said that the longer you live, the more you learn and while browsing the Internet recently I discovered that the true origin of the celebration of May Day had nothing to do with workers and their rights, but actually dates back centuries to even before the days when Jesus walked the earth.
For example, the ancient Druids in the British Isles celebrated May 1 as the day that divided the year into half, the other day being November 1. The date was also a very popular one for feasting among the ancient Romans, who devoted it to the worship of Flora, the goddess of flowers.
It was this original May Day that gave the world the maypole dance, which was once a staple of cultural activity in Barbados, and which also became the symbol of the French Revolution as the peasants celebrated that historic occasion. 
In similar fashion, for centuries villagers across the English Channel had been setting up maypoles cut from the trunks of tall birch trees, decorating them with bright field flowers and dancing and singing around them to the music of a piper, more than likely accompanied by a drum or two. 
Now tell me if this doesn’t sound like where our tuk bands and Bank Holiday Bear, Mother Sally and other folk characters originated. In addition to the maypole, the May Day celebration of long, long ago included another but very energetic dance called the Morris dance in which small groups danced together in costumes depicting traditional characters.
Of interest is the fact that the central figure in each group was a dancer called the “animal-man”. Was that our Bank Holiday Bear? Each group also included a “man-woman” known as Maid Marian. Was that our Mother Sally? And there was a “man-horse” too. Was that our donkey man?
The word Morris was actually derived from “morisco”, meaning “Moorish”, and had to do with the dancers blackening their faces. 
Now if you don’t already know, go online or in the library and learn all about what happened to Europe for centuries after 710 AD when black armies known as the Moors crossed from Africa to invade and blacken up Spain, Portugal and France, where their victories became the substance of legends. So enjoy your May Day.
Al Gilkes heads a public relations firm.


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