I witnessed my first May Day parade, when my wife and I were touring Saint Petersburg in 2018, after I had read a paper at the Moscow Conference on International Security.

While we were touring the historic sites on May 1, everything came to a standstill and we witnessed a magnificent parade to commemorate the International Workers’ Day, also known as Labour Day.

The day is also referred to as May Day. As an aircrew I was familiar with the call ‘Mayday’, which is given when the aircraft is in extreme danger.

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It also used to be celebrated as a pagan festival, to mark the commencement of spring but how it became the International Labour Day has an interesting history.

On 21 April 1856, Australian stonemasons in Victoria undertook a mass stoppage as part of the eight-hour workday movement. The eight-hour day movement (also known as the 40-hour week movement or the short-time movement) was a social movement to regulate the length of a working day, preventing excesses and abuses of working time.

An eight-hour work day has its origins in 16th century Spain, but the modern movement dates back to the Industrial Revolution in Britain, where industrial production in large factories transformed working life. At that time, the working day could range from 10 to 16 hours, the work week was typically six days a week and the use of child labour was common.

It became a yearly commemoration, inspiring American workers to have their first stoppage. 1 May was chosen to be International Workers’ Day to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. In that year beginning on 1 May, there was a general strike for the eight-hour workday.

On 4 May, the police acted to disperse a public assembly in support of the strike when an unidentified person threw a bomb. The police responded by firing on the workers. The event led to the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; sixty police officers were injured, as were one hundred and fifteen civilians.

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Hundreds of labour leaders and sympathisers were later rounded-up and four were executed by hanging, after a trial that was seen as a miscarriage of justice. The following day on 5 May, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the state militia fired on a crowd of strikers killing seven, including a schoolboy and a man feeding chickens in his yard.

The observance of 1 May as the International Workers’ Day came in 1889, when the first meeting of the Second International was held in Paris, following a proposal by Raymond Lavigne that called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago protests.

On 1 May 1890, the call encouraged May Day demonstrations which took place in the United States and most countries in Europe. Demonstrations were also held in Chile and Peru. May Day was formally recognised as an annual event at the International’s second congress in 1891. Subsequently, the May Day riots of 1894 occurred.

The International Socialist Congress, Amsterdam 1904 called on “all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.” The congress made it “mandatory upon the proletarian organisations of all countries to stop work on 1 May, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.”

May Day has seen demonstrations by various socialist, communist and anarchist groups since the Second International. May Day is one of the most important holidays in communist countries such as China, Vietnam, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and the former Soviet Union countries.

May Day celebrations in these countries typically feature elaborate workforce parades, including displays of military hardware and soldiers.

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In Europe May 1 was historically associated with rural pagan festivals. The observance probably originated in ancient agricultural rituals, and the Greeks and Romans held such festivals. Although later practices varied widely, the celebrations came to include the gathering of wildflowers and green branches, the weaving of floral garlands, the crowning of a May king and queen, and the setting up of a decorated May tree, or Maypole, around which people danced.

Such rites originally may have been intended to ensure fertility for crops and, by extension, for livestock and humans, but in most cases this significance was gradually lost, so that the practices survived largely as popular festivities.

Among the many superstitions associated with May Day was the belief that washing the face with dew on the morning of May 1 would beautify the skin. Because the Puritans of New England considered the celebrations of May Day to be licentious and pagan, they forbade its observance, and the holiday never became an important part of American culture.

In the 20th century, traditional May Day celebrations declined in many countries as May 1 became associated with the international holiday honouring workers and the labour movement, but the original meaning of the day was gradually replaced by the modern association with the labour movement.

In Germany Labour Day became an official holiday in 1933 after the rise of the Nazi Party. Ironically, Germany abolished free unions the day after establishing the holiday, virtually destroying the German labour movement.

With the breakup of the Soviet Union and the fall of communist governments in eastern Europe in the late 20th century, large-scale May Day celebrations in that region declined in importance. In dozens of countries around the world, however, May Day has been recognized as a public holiday, and it continues to be celebrated with picnics and parties while serving as the occasion for demonstrations and rallies in support of workers.

A few words about the origin of the international distress call ‘May Day’. Mayday signals a life-threatening emergency, usually on a ship or a plane, although it may be used in a variety of other situations.

Procedure calls for the mayday distress signal to be said three times in a row — Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! — so that it won’t be mistaken for another word or phrase that sounds similar under noisy conditions.

A typical distress call will start with mayday repeated three times, followed by all the relevant information that potential rescuers would need, including type and identity of craft involved, nature of the emergency, location or last known location, current weather, fuel remaining, what type of help is needed and number of people in danger.

Mayday got its start as an international distress call in 1923. It was made official in 1948. It was the idea of Frederick Mockford, who was a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London. He came up with the idea for “mayday” because it sounded like the French word m’aider, which means “help me.”

For situations that are less than life-threatening, one of several other urgent messages can be conveyed. For example, ‘Pan-Pan’ — from the French word panne, which means ‘breakdown’ — can be used to signal an urgent situation involving a mechanical or medical issue.

Another signal is ‘Securite’—from the French word sécurité, which means ‘safety.’ Securite is often used to convey a message about safety, such as bad weather or navigation hazards. Like mayday, these phrases are usually repeated three times to avoid confusion.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

S. M. Hali

The writer is a retired Group Captain of PAF, and now a security analyst

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