May Day: Reflecting on certain customs and practices of the working-class and ruling-class, Keith Flett shares his thoughts
Over the past few decades, popular music from bands like the Mamas and the Papas and the Boomtown Rats have served as a reminder that Monday is not the most beloved day of the week. Interestingly, before the advent of industrial capitalism in Britain, it was customary for artisan workers who only had Sunday off to also take Monday off, and sometimes even extend their break into Tuesday. This practice became known as “Saint Monday.”
It may come as a surprise to many in 2023 that two significant protests in British history occurred on Mondays. The Peterloo Massacre, which took place in August of 1819, and the Chartist protest for the right to vote on Kennington Common in April of 1848, both occurred on Mondays.
In 1871, the Bank Holidays Act was introduced in an effort to regulate and manage the practice of taking Mondays off. This law allowed for a limited number of official holidays, including Boxing Day and Whitsun. However, it wasn’t until 1978 when the Labour government added May Day as an official holiday, which was seen as a progressive move to commemorate International Workers’ Day.
However, the underlying motive for adding May Day as an official holiday was to curb the practice of workers taking unauthorized strike action on May 1st. Since then, there have been calls from conservatives to move the May Day holiday to autumn and rename it Trafalgar Day or Margaret Thatcher Day.
Interestingly, even Margaret Thatcher herself appreciated the May Day holiday. In fact, her personal papers, which are now held at the Thatcher Foundation, reveal that on Monday, May 4th, 1981, she enjoyed a leisurely lunch with her husband Denis and daughter Carol.
May Day is celebrated throughout Britain with various marches and festivals, although not always on May 1st itself. It is often intertwined with the traditional celebration of spring that the month of May brings, as seen in Walter Crane’s illustrations for the day that sometimes depict the start of a new season of labor.
According to Eric Hobsbawm, who studied May Day celebrations around the world, other countries tend to have more vibrant and forceful protests compared to those in Britain. In the UK, May Day events typically reflect the laborist traditions dating back to the 1860s, featuring marches with banners, brass bands, and speakers. However, in recent times, the diversity of music, flags, and banners has greatly expanded, reflecting a living tradition.
Exactly one week after the May Day bank holiday, another holiday will be held on May 8th to commemorate the coronation of King Charles III, which took place on May 6th. While some people will appreciate the additional paid time off work, it’s worth noting that the UK has fewer public holidays compared to other European countries, which is a point consistently raised by the TUC. Additionally, special holidays may be declared at the discretion of the authorities.
According to Eric Hobsbawm’s research on May Day celebrations across the globe, other countries tend to have more dynamic and vigorous protests compared to those in Britain. In the UK, May Day events typically uphold the laborist traditions from the 1860s, featuring marches with banners, brass bands, and speeches. However, in recent times, the diversity of music, flags, and banners has significantly increased, reflecting a vibrant and evolving tradition.
Following the May Day bank holiday, another holiday will occur on May 8th to commemorate the coronation of King Charles III, which took place on May 6th. Although some may welcome the additional paid time off, it’s worth noting that the UK has fewer public holidays than other European countries, which is an issue repeatedly raised by the TUC. Additionally, the authorities may declare special holidays at their discretion.
Keith Flett is a historian with socialist views.