A Holiday for Workers as well as Welcoming Spring!
The beginning of May has long been celebrated across Europe as the start of summer, with festivities ranging from the street carnival-like atmosphere of Finland to Morris dancing in areas of England. In Germany, May 1st has been a public holiday since the days of the Weimar Republic.
May Day – another name for May 1st – intertwines two movements. As mentioned, it is traditionally the start of summer in European countries, and so flowers are in bloom, songs are sung, there may be a May Queen contest in some areas, and so on. It’s common for families to enjoy the fresh air outside on this day, and so there may be a lot of picnics or general festivities outside on this day.
In Germany the festivities may start on the night before (April 30 – May 1st), which is the night known as Walpurgisnacht – sometimes fires are lit to await the arrival of warmer weather on Walpurgisnacht, and in some of the rural areas, pranks may be played. Different towns might have slightly different traditions for May Day festivities, so please make sure to ask what your town does!
The political Meaning of May 1st
But the second movement is that of workers’ rights and political agitation. May 1st was declared a day to celebrate labor and work by members of various socialist and workers’ parties at the Second International, and so it has been associated with political agitation and celebrating the working classes in some form since approximately 1889. Before the German unity, both East Germany and West Germany held May Day celebrations, but the flavor of them varied; in East Germany, workers were pressured to participate in state-organized rallies and parades. In West Germany there was agitation and demonstrations by the workers’ movements and other movements (such as anarchists and so on) – notably in 1987, there was major unrest in the area of Kreuzberg and violent riots occurred.
Because of that area’s experience with riots and unrest around May 1st due to anarchist movements and political tensions, alternative festivals and observances in Berlin have been supported as a way to not only hold the traditions of May Day observances, but also as a way to decrease tensions and promote peace. Police also have a policy of de-escalation in place, to help protect lives of the citizens.
So go out for May Day and enjoy the festivities or rallies, but make sure to take care as well!