Mayday or Labor Day? What is celebrated on 1 May in Hungary?

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Mayday or Labor Day? What is celebrated on 1 May in Hungary?

If you look at your Hungarian calendar, you will see 1 May marked in red ink, and indicated as Labor Day. It is a public holiday in Hungary, and it is celebrated by various festivities, amusements, parades, and sometimes – demonstrations? How does that make sense?

Mayday in Hungarian folklore

Mayday has been celebrated in Hungary at least since the early 15th century, most probably even before. It is a festivity celebrating spring and fertility. The main spectacle is putting up a maypole: a tall, slender tree with any branches cleaned off from its trunk, with branches and leaves left only at the top.

  • Sometimes there was only one maypole in the middle of the village
  • Sometimes young men put maypoles in front of the houses of local maidens (or just their lovers)
  • Sometimes instead of foliage, there was a wheel or a wreath on the top of the maypole, decorated with green branches and/or ribbons

The maypoles stood in place until Pentecost, which is usually just a few weeks away, when they were ritually demolished. Both days were celebrated with feasts, games, and music.

Mayday in the labor movement

In the 19th century, the standard working day in for factory workers was well above 10 or even 12 hours, and working conditions were often abysmal, even for women and children. Unions and various labor representatives advocated not only for shorter working hours and better regulations of working conditions, but also for a day recognizing workers and their contributions to modern society.

In contrast to the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, where Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday of September, in most countries of Europe it is on the first of May. This is to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket Affair, which started as a demonstration in favor of the 8-hour workday in Chicago (USA), but turned into a riot and a massacre. The day is commemorated as Labor Day since 1890.

Labor Day as a public holiday in Hungary

1 May is a public holiday in Hungary since 1946. Labor Day matched the ideals of socialism quite nicely, and after World War II, the Soviet regime wanted to make it a day celebrating the soviet ideology as well as workers. There were parades all over the country, and colleagues were required to join the procession, parading together, representing their various factories, companies, and offices. They were also encouraged to find ways to demonstrate the economic progress the country was making.

After the parade, it was usual to have family-friendly festivities in the local parks or the main square of the town, with street food, music, contests, or other attractions like those provided in temporary amusement parks, e.g. carousels, giant slides, mirror mazes, shooting galleries. Decorations for the day often included (and still include) maypoles, to connect the new festivity to the days of old.

Labor Day in Hungary today

After the end of communist rule in Hungary, the day remained a public holiday, but became the day of solidarity of workers. However, it is still referred to as Labor Day. There are no mandatory parades anymore, but the family-friendly open-air events remained. If you live in Hungary with your family, check out what your local community center or municipality has to offer.

At the same time, Labor Day is now more connected to its roots in the labor movement. This is why sometimes there are demonstration for worker rights on this day. Between these and the festivities, you can expect roads to be blocked, so make sure you double-check the map before you leave for a trip on this day.

Mayday is Labor Day

Whether you refer to 1 May in Hungary as Mayday or Labor Day, it does not make a big difference these days. People go out, have fun at the festivities, celebrating spring, eating street food, listening to music, and spending time together. And the fact that we can do this is a great achievement of the labor movement.

How do you celebrate Mayday where you live? Is it also Labor Day there? How much of the above was new information to you? If you have Hungarian heritage, you might have heard about this already from your family members.

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