“Tag der Arbeit” – The First of May in Germany

Happy First of May or “Tag der Arbeit”! Today I just wanted to ramble a little about this day and my experience with the holiday, the history, some politics, and some traditions of it back in my home state of RLP.

So, in Germany, the first of May is a holiday when people don’t have work, usually. There are some places that still have open like restaurants and stuff but it’s usually because holidays are when people have time to go to those places. There are many people that “dance into May” at specific parties that are dated onto the 30th of April where you… literally… dance… into May… those are pretty cool. There are also some protests and demonstrations for working-class issues on the first of May and personally, I’ve only attended one of them in the past, although I left because some of it ended up being less peaceful than I anticipated.

Generally speaking, it’s really “just” a holiday where people don’t have to work. If you were to ask people where its origin lies, they’ll tell you a few different stories (if at all) but it’s quite hard to pinpoint where exactly it came from. Some say that it just was decided that the “Day of the Workers” or “Day of Work” or “Labour Day” is on that specific day to give people the chance to rest up… but most people attribute it to 1886 when a workers’ movement staged a strike or walkout on May 1st in the U.S.

Most of this here is based on what I learned in History Classes btw… Some of it may not be exactly accurate so don’t quote me on it. I don’t have specific dates or names in mind that I could name here, so I’ll leave it somewhat vague. Anyhow, there were many on-going demonstrations back then as well, some of which were silenced using violence. A lot of policemen died, a lot of leaders of the workers’ union ended up being sentenced to death, and it claimed a lot of victims, which is why people commemorate the victims on this day. A few of the reasons for the strikes and protests include better working conditions and an eight-hour day.

In 1889, the SDAP (later SPD, essentially the “working-class party”) made this day a holiday to protest for better working conditions as well here in Germany. In 1890, about 100k people didn’t go to work to protest. 1919 was when this was commemorated as a holiday, though only once, which was then changed by the Nazis in 1933 where they utilized the holiday as the “Tag der nationalen Arbeit” (“The Nation’s Labour Day” or something?), changing its meaning in the process. After WW2 in 1946, the Allies made it a national holiday again, although the meaning seemed to be quite different in the West and East. The West would use it for politics while the East celebrated the working class with parades and whatnot, which makes sense since the West and East were “at odds” to say the least until the walls fell much later…

Anyway, so, I’ve been to one protest before as I had a few friends at the time who are very much engaged in the left “scene”, partially a tad radical even. In Germany, you need to actually sign up when you plan a protest as there need to be police at present and whatnot and usually, when there is a right-wing protest, there is also a left-wing protest, especially in the city I live in right now where “the left” is vast a majority. When there was this protest that I attended, there were people sitting down and blocking the road, probably from “the political right” who were then asked to leave. Those ended up getting violent and then the police retaliated, as far as I know. When stuff got a bit too hectic, I ended up leaving because I didn’t feel safe, which is valid, in my opinion. Either way, usually, the reasons why people go to such protests is because they want to protest for affordable living space and against prejudice, social injustice, and racism that is affecting the working class. People with a migration background often have a hard time getting hired in certain companies because of their background. A lot of times, it’s even harder to find affordable housing because of the gentrification that takes place in a lot of areas nowadays. Hence, it’s important to be vocal about that sort of stuff – and the First of May is typically one of those dates where protests are being staged, mostly peaceful ones.

Anyway, history and politics aside, in the state where I was born and raised, boys also celebrate May in general by placing a “May tree” in front of the house of the person they love. In leap years, girls do that, too. I assume that non-binary people can do it either way but as far as I know, people just do it regardless of the year or their gender in my hometown. I completely snoozed on this and forgot to get a small plant to place in front of my better half’s dorm apartment… but then again, she probably wouldn’t have understood that tradition given that she’s from Bavaria and they don’t celebrate it over there. So, back in Rhineland-Palatinate, people put a small tree in front of their loved one’s house – and there’s also a big “May tree” (“Maibaum”) at the town square or town centre that some people try to steal. So, I come from a smaller city with about 6k inhabitants and a neighbour village had this sort of rivalry with us… and their youngsters and our youngsters would always try to steal the other place’s may tree to place it in our town/village, which is always a lot of fun actually. Another tradition we had was this sort of festival that was celebrated with music and whatnot where boys would climb the may tree and try to get a bicycle that was tied to the top of it… I don’t exactly remember what that was about but it was incredibly weird and… I’m scared of heights, so I never participated in that.

But for the past few years, I’ve been living in a different state and here, the whole May Tree thing isn’t really a thing, so people wouldn’t understand the pranks and whatnot. It’s a bit of a bummer but hey, it’s whatever. Another thing I noticed is that while in other European countries the Workers’ Day is celebrated on May 2nd if May 1st is on a Sunday, Germany doesn’t have that… which is a bummer… because Sundays are days that you don’t work on anyhow, so missing out on the First of May means less rest for people that work a lot. That’s something that “Die Linke” (the “Left Party”) and “Bündnis 90/Die Grünen” (the “Green Party”) want to change as fewer days for rest mean more pent-up stress for the workers which is not good… Hence, I still need to decide between one of the two for the upcoming election… but it’s another reason to vote for one of the two!

Do you celebrate Labour’s Day or Workers’ Day or whatever as well and if so, how? Let me know!

This post was first published on Indiecator by Dan Indiecator aka MagiWasTaken. If you like what you see here and want to see more, you can check me out on Twitch and YouTube as well. If you find this post on a website other than Indiecator.org, please write an e-mail to me. Thank you!

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