History: May Day | Warsaw Insider
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If today’s May 1st holiday is little more than a day off to be spent in the sun, in previous years it wielded an... History: May Day
History: May Day History: May Day

If today’s May 1st holiday is little more than a day off to be spent in the sun, in previous years it wielded an altogether different significance…


Whereas the origins of workers’ parades to coincide with May Day can be traced to the times of the Industrial Revolution, it was the Communist era that saw the celebration of May 1st become “a nationwide ritual”. As early as 1945, ceremonies and parades were organised in cities and villages, and these essentially became stage-managed propaganda events designed to underscore the mass-acceptance of the Communist system.


Enshrined as a statutory holiday in 1950, it was from that point onwards that the day took on an even greater meaning. Naturally, as the centre of power, all eyes fell on Warsaw. By that stage, though, the almost surreal nature of the day had already become apparent – the previous year, the country faced a ‘red cloth deficit’ having already used so much fabric for previous marches and celebrations.


With over 1.2 million sq/m of red fabric required, the lack of red cloth for banners became such an urgent issue that it was discussed at the highest level.

The absurdities relating to May Day were not lost on the mathematician Hugo Steinhaus. Writing in his diary, he observed: “the firefighter’s ladder no longer leaves the University of Technology as it is constantly needed to hang or take down various flags and banners. No-one knows anymore if this is a celebration of peace, friendship, labour or some tragic buffoonery.”


Described by some as being the equivalent of “Communism’s name day”, the importance of May 1st found itself accelerated towards the end of the 1940s when the PPR and PPS merged to form one single entity, the PZPR (Polish United Workers’ Party). With this, came a top-down manipulation of the holiday.

Defined by its extravagantly coordinated marches, dress rehearsals were held weeks in advance and careful attention was paid to the size and content of both portraits and placards that people carried – for instance, images of Poland’s leader, Bierut, could not be larger than those of Stalin.


The most curious aspect, though, was the sub-division of parading columns. Split by profession, columns of miners would march in their overalls and helmets, fishermen would carry nets, and doctors and nurses would be resplendent in their pristine white coats.

As if to add to the bizarre scene, floats and models were also introduced – for example, builders would haul giant scale models of the constructions they had worked on; representing their confectionary factory, other diligent marchers would carry a giant chocolate bar lofted overhead.

In this way says Dr. Piotr Osęka, “living allegories of ideological virtues and values were created.” Used to demonstrate the modernity, power and unity of the Communist world, today these sham parades survive only as a memory to be viewed as a slightly puzzling throwback curiosity.


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