Happy Loyalty Day! Today is a "a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom." I’m all for the heritage of American freedom, but forgive my cynicism in questioning why May 1 is the day we officially celebrate it. Loyalty Day seems to have been an early instance of counterprogramming, offering a contrasting holiday to celebrate for the millions of Americans unwilling to participate in May Day parades and rallies. Those parades were haunted by a specter: the specter of Communism. For decades, the Soviet Union’s leaders celebrated May Day as the international worker’s holiday by interminably parading the military hardware that they had bankrupted their nation building across Red Square (along with paramilitary troops of workers and festive flags) before crowds of cheering citizens whose happiness, one suspects, was bolstered by the fact that May Day (according to a recent Harper’s article by Leon Aron) was one of the few days when ordinary Russians could reliably obtain meat.
However, the holiday’s roots predate the Russian Revolution by decades. In 1886, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Union called a general strike to help achieve the goal of the eight-hour workday. The strike was to begin on May 1; on May 3, Chicago police fired into a crowd of strikers outside the McCormick Reaper factory, killing four. A rally the next day ended in tragedy; the Haymarket Affair began when the police came to break up the rally. A bomb was tossed (by person or persons unknown) at the police, who then fired on the crowd; the strikers returned fire. Sixty police and an unknown number of the crowd were killed. The Chicago police, with the backing of a number of the city’s industrialists, arrested every foreign radical they could get their hands on. Three and a half months later, seven German anarchists were sentenced to death despite the lack of evidence connecting them to the attack; two had not even been at the rally by the time the riot broke out. Rudolph Schnaubelt, whom the police believed had actually thrown the bomb, had fled the country, vanishing into the mists of history and fiction.
May Day’s prominence in the Soviet Union may not have been solely due to its connection with the history of labor radicalism. After all, Marxist-Leninism was an uneasy fit with labor anarchism. But in offering their view of a day celebrating the noble proletariat, they might have been trying to prevent celebrations of holidays of a less secular sort. The association of May with Mary ("O Mary we crown thee with blossoms today / Queen of angels, Queen of the May") is quite recent; the first recorded suggestion of May as a month special to Mary was by Father Annibale Dionisi in 1726, and no records exist of Marianist May devotionals being practiced in public before 1784, putting it hundreds of years behind pagan revels such as the maypole and Morris dancing; Jonathan Swift seized upon the disdain for such spring festivities as a sign of Puritan extremism:
No couple-beggar in the land
E’er joined such numbers hand in hand.
I joined them fairly with a ring;
Nor can our parson blame the thing.
And though no marriage words are spoke,
They part not till the ring is broke;
Yet hypocrite fanatics cry,
I’m but an idol raised on high;
And once a weaver in our town,
A damned Cromwellian, knocked me down.
The Nonconformists banned maypoles and the Articles of Inquiry, Concerning Matter Eccelsiastical spoke out against Morris dancers; surely some damned Cromwellian out there is even now planning to save the world from the license and promiscuity of modern springtime revels, but thanks to America’s tradition of freedom, we need not fear for the Three Strand May-Pole-Ka.