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May Day: Roots in an ancient rite

Quebec protest
May Day is one stop on a crowded protest calendar that included this recent rally in Quebec  

LONDON (CNN) -- The May Day holiday now associated with scenes of urban mayhem began in pagan times as a festive rite of spring.

The annual winter's-end tribute of games and feasting marked Beltane, the day of fire, and heralded Spring, the season of fertility, according to Eugene Plawiuk, author of The Origins and Traditions of Mayday.

On the evening of April 30, ancient Saxon peasants bearing flaming torches would clamber up rural hilltops, light wooden wheels and roll them back down into the fields. Europe
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Celtic peasants observed a similar ritual, but added a god and goddess of the hunt, Plawiuk says.

Even after the Catholic Church banned the ritual, many peasants, undaunted, carried on with the May eve revelry until the late 18th century -- forcing the Church to ultimately accept some of the practices as a way of winning converts, Plawiuk writes.

In modern times, industrial workers co-opted the May Day mantle, turning it into a clarion call for solidarity against the perceived abuses of capitalism.

The precursor of the latter-day May Day was a spate of national strikes called by the Knights of Labor in the United States and Canada, on May 1, 1886, to press workers' calls for an eight-hour workday. In one of those strikes, six workers were killed in attacks by police.

The popularity of the workers' movement - 90,000 marched in Chicago, 10,000 in New York -- alarmed capitalist chieftains and led some newspapers to warn of "communist infiltrators," according to Andy McInerney, writing in Liberation & Marxism.

By April 1886, McInerney said, more than 30,000 workers were granted an eight-hour day as bosses capitulated to their basic demand.

The U.S. strike movement had global reverberations.

In 1889 - the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution - hundreds of delegates meeting in Paris at the Marxist International Socialist Congress, keen on militating for their own eight-hour workday, resolved to call for a "great international demonstration."

Global popularity

The United States and most European countries staged May Day rallies on May 1, 1890, according to McInerney.

Demonstrations also took place in Cuba, Chile and Peru and, a year later, in 1891, the May Day spirit had spread to Russia, Brazil and Ireland, McInerney writes.

China, taking a cue from Russia's Bolshevik triumph, followed suit with its own May Day protests in 1920, while the Indian cities of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay marked the event in 1927.

As the movement caught on across the world, it lost steam in its birthplace - the United States -- where May 1 celebrations were replaced by a more mainstream tribute to workers on Labor Day, observed in September.

With the rise of the Internet and the information age, May Day demonstrations worldwide have become more diffuse, and critics would argue, less disciplined, with specific issues of workers' rights subsumed in a broader fight against corporate abuse and the perceived evils of globalisation.

In the past few years, May Day demonstrations in Europe's financial capital, London, have become a lightning rod for anarchists opposed to big business and globalisation.

The May 1 protest has become, effectively, one stop on a crowded calendar of grass-roots protests held wherever political and corporate bosses gather, from Seattle to Quebec to Prague.

In each case, demonstrators have found themselves arrayed against a phalanx of riot cops, provoking complaints of excessive use of force.

In last year's May Day protests in London, demonstrators daubed the Cenotaph in Whitehall with graffiti, splashed green paint on a statue of Winston Churchill and dug up the lawn in Parliament Square.

The previous year, demonstrators unleashed havoc in London's financial district as what was originally intended as a peaceful protest veered out of control.

In the wake of these incidents, Metropolitan police in London, eager to avoid a recurrence, have pledged a "zero-tolerance" policy this year, warning that any serious troublemakers will be arrested and charged.

A feature in this week's Guardian newspaper saw echoes of May Days past in the organisation of this year's event.

"In this, as in so much else, the elusive architects of modern May Day anarchy are part of a long lineage.

"And though they might want to distance themselves from the reactionary xenophobes who led many of Britain's popular insurrections, the expressed targets (of Tuesday's) planned disturbances - American multinational businesses - are curiously reminiscent of the 'wealthy foreign merchants'" targeted in London's 'Evil May Day' riots of 1517.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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