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Their May Day bank holidays and ours: A look at the history and significance of May Day in Britain

May Day, or the first of May, has been celebrated as a holiday across the world for centuries. It has traditionally been associated with the arrival of spring, fertility, and new beginnings. In Britain, however, May Day has taken on a particular significance due to its association with workers’ rights and the labor movement.

Before the advent of industrial capitalism, many workers in Britain observed “Saint Monday” – taking the Monday off after their day of rest on Sunday. However, this practice was not officially recognized until the passing of the 1871 Bank Holidays Act, which permitted a small number of official holidays, including Whitsun and Boxing Day.

It was not until 1978 that May Day was recognized as an official bank holiday in Britain, thanks to the efforts of the Labour government. The holiday was seen as a progressive move to celebrate International Workers’ Day and to stifle the practice of unofficial strikes on May 1.

Since then, May Day has been celebrated with marches, festivals, and protests across the country, often combining the traditions of laborism with the welcoming of spring. While British May Days tend to feature marches with banners, brass bands, and speakers, in other countries, May Day is marked with more lively and robust protests, as noted by historian Eric Hobsbawm.

However, the holiday has not been without controversy. Reactionaries have long demanded that the May Day holiday be moved to the autumn and renamed Trafalgar Day or Margaret Thatcher Day. While Thatcher herself enjoyed the break, it remains a source of contention among some in the country.

One week after the May Day bank holiday, another bank holiday is held on May 8 to mark the coronation of King Charles III on May 6. While many will enjoy the additional paid break, the holiday has been criticized for its cost to the public, despite the wealth of the royal family.

The coronation also has its own traditions, some historic and others invented or reinvented for the occasion. For example, an Australian citizen Simon Abney-Hastings will carry a golden spur at the coronation, a tradition reportedly dating back to Richard the Lionheart’s coronation in 1189. However, the purpose of the golden spur in 2023 remains unclear.

As Britain observes these bank holidays, it is worth reflecting on the history and significance of May Day in the country. While the holiday has been associated with the labor movement and workers’ rights, it has also been subject to controversy and debate. As the country looks towards the future, it remains to be seen how May Day and other bank holidays will continue to evolve and be celebrated in the years to come.

By: Mr. WWK


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