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May 1st in the Past: From Labor Demonstrations to International Holiday

Zsófia Nagy-Vargha 2020.05.01.

International Workers’ Day is called Labor Day, Worker’s Day, or in some countries, referred to as May Day. In Hungary, the day is called the “Munka ünnepe” (Celebration of work) and is a public holiday. The economic and social achievements of workers are recognized on this day, but incidentally, it does not take place on May 1st in every country. The first ceremony in Hungary was held in Budapest back in 1919, but then there was a long pause in celebrations. So much so that the next one was only held in 1946 – however,  by then it had turned into a state ceremony. We have collected photos of the celebrations from Fortepan’s archive photo collection.

Origin of the date

The holiday actually originates in the USA: on May 1, 1886, around 400,000 workers in several cities went on a strike and demanded the introduction of an eight-hour working day. In Chicago, violent clashes broke out on May 3rd and 4th. Several protesters and police officers died during the so-called ‘Haymarket Riot,’ in the aftermath of a bombing during the demonstration. Eight strike organizers were charged and executed in the internationally publicized legal proceedings, quoting conspiracy. The evidence was that one of the defendants may have built the bomb, but none of those on trial had thrown it.

First celebrations in Hungary in 1919

Renamed streets, mass parades, a capital dressed in red curtains. The Soviet Republic of Hungary held splendid demonstrations  on May 1, 1919, showcasing its strength in Budapest and across the country.

Budapest, V. District on May 1, 1919. Kossuth Lajos (Köztársaság) square, with decorations over the statue of Gyula Andrássy and the Parliament in the background.

via Fortepan, donated by Zoltán Marics

1919, Budapest VII. District. Rákóczi street, the parade on May 1, 1919, with the White Swan Hotel in the background (building No. 4).

via Fortepan, donated by László Péchy

After 1946 until the turning point

In Hungary, May 1st became known as the “International Day of the Struggle and Celebration of the Workers for Peace and Socialism,” a compulsory event in which Hungarian citizens had to march past great tribunes with members of the party and guests of honor sitting on them. The ideology has proven useful for the Communist Party because they have always lied that they only serve the working people. (In fact, working people were serving the Party.) Large mass parades were held every year from May 1, 1946 until the fall of communism.

Budapest, VI. District on May 1st, 1946 with Andrássy Street and Jókai square in the background.

via Fortepan, donated by Pál Berkó

via Fortepan, donated by Pál Berkó

via Fortepan, donated by Pál Berkó

May 1st, 1956, a group of Hungarian doctors at the parade in the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”

via Fortepan, donated by Ákos Lőrinczi

Budapest, 1974.

via Fortepan, donated by Angyalföldi Helytörténeti Gyűjtemény

May 1st Parade in Eger, Hungary. Hatvani Gate (Lenin) Square, with the cathedral in the background.

via Fortepan, donated by Tamás Urbán

The turning point

“Labor Day” or the “Celebration of Work” is now a public holiday in many countries around the world. While the date May 1st prevailed in Europe, Labor Day is celebrated in September in the United States. It also takes place on other days in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. However, since the introduction of the holiday, “Labor Day” has lost importance as a day of struggle for workers’ rights. For many, it has become a welcomed day-off from work – especially if, like this year, it extends the weekend with a Friday to a long weekend. On this day, however, most political parties still profit from the day, underlining their relationship with work, workers and celebrate together with their sympathizers.

Gyula Thürmer, chairman of the Hungarian Workers’ Party surrounded by supporters of the party, marches in the Hungarian capital on May 1, 2017.

Photo: Balázs Mohai/MTI

“Labor Day” during the coronavirus pandemic

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, all celebrations were canceled for the first time since the regime change in 1989. This year, people can concentrate much more on “Joseph the Worker,” the carpenter, the father of Jesus. Many people do not know that since 1955, May 1st has also been celebrated as the additional Feast of “St. Joseph the Worker.” Pope Pius XII introduced the day in 1889 as a sign of reconciliation with the workers. The feast is celebrated on May 1st in order to coincide with the celebration of International Workers’ Day, celebrated in many countries. This is not only to honor the saint but also to raise awareness of the dignity of human work.

Original article by Zsófia Nagy-Vargha/Ungarn Heute

Translated by Fanni Kaszás

featured photo:  Ajtósi Dürer sor on May 1, 1985. (via Fortepan, donor: Angyalföldi Helytörténeti Gyűjtemény. Fortepan is the largest free online photo archive in Hungary)