Friday, April 29, 2011

Red and Green May Days

Red May Day

May 1 is a curious day on the seasonal calendar—a day around which are a variety of observances, what an old UU children’s curriculum called Holidays and Holy Days.

May Day celebrations fall into the broad categories of Red and Green. First, Red May Day:

While the US celebrates a national holiday in September called Labor Day, around the world, May 1 is the traditional international day to honor workers—the gains they have collectively made through the years, as well as fruits of their labor that benefit society. Why May 1? Well, the date commemorates a still controversial event that took place in Chicago in 1886: the Haymarket Affair.

I remember the first time I realized that I stood in what was once known as Haymarket Square, on the north edge of the loop, where Randolph and Des Plaines Streets. It was at least a decade ago. I had unintentionally rambled into what was nondescript open space and, embedded in the pavement, I came upon an inauspicious brass plaque that marked the spot where on May 3, 1886, a bomb was thrown at a workers’ rally that shook the world. I was amazed that this was the only commemoration of one of the significant events of Chicago, indeed world, history.

Here’s a recent Chicago Sun Times account that cogently describes the event:

The story of the Haymarket Incident is rich in themes that resonate to this day.

It was a time when Americans felt threatened by terrorists. When suspicion fell heavily on certain groups of immigrants. When basic civil rights, such as free speech, were under attack in the name of national security.

On May 3, 1886, two men were killed by police outside a McCormick reaper factory on the Southwest Side, where striking workers were demanding an eight-hour day.

The following night, several thousand protesters, outraged by the killings, turned out for a rally at the Haymarket, west of today's Loop. One flier promoting the rally -- and this really alarmed the police -- called for "revenge" and encouraged workers to fight back with weapons: "To arms, we call you, to arms!"

The rhetoric at the rally was just as fiery, with anarchists calling for not just an eight-hour day, but the complete overthrow of the capitalist system. The rally was otherwise peaceful, however, so much so that Mayor Carter Harrison, who had stopped by to observe, walked home early.

But as the rally was winding down, when only a few hundred protesters were still present, about 180 police officers marched to the makeshift speaker's stand -- the bed of a Crane's Co. wagon. An officer ordered the crowd to disperse and, at that moment, somebody threw a bomb into the cops' ranks.

One officer was killed almost instantly. Gunfire and general panic broke out. At least four workers were killed. Six more officers would die of their injuries in the coming weeks.

Precisely what else happened that night remains a matter of intense disagreement, but what followed is indisputable -- a shameful travesty of justice.

Eight protestors were arrested and charged with conspiracy in the death of the police officer. There was a speedy and quick trial. Five were found guilty and four hanged, the fifth condemned man committed suicide by biting on a blasting cap; the other three were later pardoned by Governor John Peter Altgeld. The trial drew international interest/protest and was generally considered a miscarriage of justice.

The bomber was never identified. The police had acted against the mayor’s wishes and possibly killed their comrades by friendly fire. Altgeld’s pardons seemed to verify the injustice of the trial and executions, that he did it on the day after the dedication of a martyr’s monument, had unmistakable significance. (He actually announced the pardons at the monument’s dedication.)

In 1893, just in time for the Columbian Exposition and a flood of visitors, a monument to the worker martyrs of Haymarket Square was erected in Forest Park Cemetery, where they were buried. The monument, often called the Statue of Liberty for international workers, depicts a woman representing Justice (the five condemned men before the hanging sang the Marseilles) placing a crown of laurel on a fallen worker. 8,000 attended the dedication.

This monument has been restored in time for the 125th anniversary of the Haymarket Affair. This week pay attention to the observances and perhaps even visit the monument. (This afternoon at 1:00 p.m. there will be a special progam at the monument, 863 Des Plaines Avenue in Forest Park.)

The first monument to this Haymarket Affair, funded by Chicago’s Union League and erected in 1889, commemorating the fallen policeman Mathias Degan, has had a telling history. You only need to look at it to discern what it represented: law and order. It was deemed a traffic hazard, though, and a year later it was moved from Haymarket Square to Union Park at Randolph and Ogden Avenues. In 1927 a streetcar driver drove his streetcar into it, declaring he’d grown tired of looking at it. It was removed to a safer location in Union Park. In 1958 the statue was returned to Haymarket Square. During the Vietnam War protests and ’68 Democratic Convention it was so frequently vandalized, that in 1972 the statue was taken first to the lobby of Police Headquarters and then in 1976 to a protected atrium at the Police Academy, out of public sight. In 2007, after extensive refurbishment, including a new pedestal, it was returned to Police Headquarters.

Now, on the Haymarket site there’s a recently installed monument to the 1886 Affair, a sculpture by Mary Brogger erected by the city in 2004. It depicts the wagon from which the speakers spoke as well as the mayhem of that famous moment. The official narrative pays a curious homage to all participants. One of the several plaques at the monument’s base reads, “Over the years, the site of the Haymarket bombing has become a powerful symbol for a diverse cross-section of people, ideals and movements. Its significance touches on the issues of free speech, the right of public assembly, organized labor, the fight for the eight hour work day, law enforcement, justice, anarchy and the right of every human being to pursue an equitable and prosperous life. For all, it is a poignant lesson in the rewards and consequences inherent in such human pursuits.”

Given the recent and continuing brouhaha over unions, particularly public unions in the states of Wisconsin and Ohio, I recommend the Haymarket Affair as an historical window of understanding. You can make a contemplative pilgrimage among these three monuments. I bend toward Martyrs’ Monument as the one that moves me the most and contains the abding truth of the Haymarket Affair to which I resonate.

The course of organized labor has always been contentious. My experiences in Youngstown in the late 1970s, as Little Steel vanished in the Mahoning Valley overnight, led me to greatly sympathize with the steel workers over the capitalists and corporations who had run the mills. But that’s another tale. I reference it as the influence that bends me to be pro-union.

More generally, as a matter of personal dignity and character, I find virtue and value in work. And as my earlier reading suggests, I think as a cultural matter we need to respect and support workers for their sake and very selfishly for our sake. They provide us the varied stuff that fill our lives.

I’m amused at the course of Red May Day as International Workers Day in the United States, following its proclamation by International workers in 1890. After WWI, the Veterans of Foreign Wars lobbied to make May 1 Americanization Day. In 1949 Americanization Day became Loyalty Day. President Eisenhower designated May 1 Law Day as well.

In my own understanding, in this time of acute globalization May 1 is a good time to pay particular attention to workers around the world, as well as our nation.

Green May Day

I think of these early May days as “the high tide of the year,” after the 19th century Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell. He was referencing June, but then spring comes later in New England than here in the Heartland.

I say the high tide of spring is rising. You only need to look around you: leaves are unfurling, grass is growing shaggy, and the yellow of forsythia, the purple of red-bud, and the white of a host of flowering shrubs and trees bring ephemeral beauty—so delicate and cheerful.

By the solar calendar, the early May celebrations coincide with the cross-quarter day, halfway between the Vernal Equinox and the Summer Solstice—actually May 5. But it’s not the calendar, but something in the human spirit that responds to the season’s flowing tide and creates festivals, which in my estimation weave in and out of each other across millennia, so it’s not easy to identify a cultural cause and effect. However, the underlying spirit is consistent.

The more ancient of the festivals, “called Beltane by the Celts, Walpurgis by the Teutons, and Floralia by the Romans, … were a time of ‘wearing of the green.’ Throughout the Northern Hemisphere, the month of May is a time to celebrate renewal of life. May is named for Maia, grandmother, the Goddess of death and fertility. Maia scorned marriage, so it was a good idea to put weddings off until June. Although less stern goddesses now oversee May festivities, wreaths and baskets of Hawthorn are still used in some May festivals in Maia's honor.”

We celebrate May Day here at UCH in the Celtic fashion that became medieval British custom. The central symbol is the Maypole that mythologists discern to have multiple meaning. 1) It represents the axis mundi or the pivot on which the earth, and also the heaven, turn. Perhaps the weaving of the ribbons in a circular dance weaves a new order on the world which has become disordered since the last spring. 2) Surely the Maypole is yet another of one of the greatest archetypes, the World Tree or the Tree of Life. The world tree has association with the Norse god Odin, who tied upon it was granted the Runes and later by, Christian tradition is associated with the Cross on which Jesus died. 3) A third, but I would argue in a mythic sense, first and preeminently, it is a fertility symbol—the male phallus—balanced by the female symbols of baskets and wreaths traditionally carried by the young girls weaving the ribbons around the pole.

In old England this was a lusty time when pretend marriages were performed around the pole, allowing young couples to “go into the green” to do what young couples have forever done. If there was a child as a result, it is said they it went unacknowledged by the father and was attributed to be an act of God.

The older English festivities included a May Queen, a lusty figure true to the very name of the month. As you’ve already learned May is named for Maia, one of the Pleiades (seven sisters) of mythology, goddess of renewal. Hawthorn sprigs, worn by all, honored her. Later tradition replaced Maia with a more virtuous Queen Marian. (Yes, the same Marian who appeared in later Robin Hood tales.)

Queen Marian, riding a white horse, was a central figure of later May festivities. How she originated is moot, but the poet/mythologist Robert Graves identified her with a sea goddess, a virgin, dressed in blue, wearing a string of pearls. These attributes also suggest Mary, the Mother of Jesus, don’t they? In later years, medieval and later, May became the month of Mary and is still celebrated as such among many Catholics who honor The Blessed Virgin with flowers. So, in this regard Mary appears to continue ancient Roman festivities fashioned to the goddess of flowers—Flora.

In more recent years, culminating in the Victorian era, there was a lovely May Day custom of secretly, anonymously leaving May Baskets on front doors/porches. These little baskets, filled with flowers and sprigs, as well as little gifts, were given without any obligation of return. I wonder if this isn’t a kind of imitation of Nature’s free gifts that come so liberally in this wondrous season.

I love all these associations, and I’ve touched upon some, but not all of Green May Day festivals and observances in our cultural heritage.

There’s no great lesson here, except what might be the greatest lesson of all: To Love Life and Life’s great surge that is in the heart of spring as well in the human breast, a rising tide of desire that keeps Life through the seasons and generations.

Now the heart is so full that a drop overfills it,

We are happy now because God wills it;

No matter how barren the past may have been,

'T is enough for us now that the leaves are green;

We sit in the warm shade and feel right well

How the sap creeps up and the blossoms swell;

We may shut our eyes, but we cannot help knowing

That skies are clear and grass is growing;

The breeze comes whispering in our ear,

That dandelions are blossoming near,

That maize has sprouted, that streams are flowing,

That the river is bluer than the sky,

That the robin is plastering his house hard by;

And if the breeze kept the good news back,

For other couriers we should not lack;

We could guess it all by yon heifer's lowing,--

And hark! how clear bold chanticleer,

Warmed with the new wine of the year,

Tells all in his lusty crowing!

from “The Vision of Sir Launfal,” James Russel Lowell

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