Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Happy May Day

It's May 1, 2012, and that means a few different things around the world.  Regular readers know that we like to do the occasional holiday-themed post on related land use issues, but this one needs to be disaggregated!

The original May Day celebrations were pagan rituals throughout Europe, particularly in Celtic, Germanic, and other Northern European societies.  These tended to focus on the traditional spring/early summer themes of rebirth and fecundity, with venerations of the deities of earth and flowers and so on.  As Christianity spread, the Church tended to co-opt these pagan celebrations, which continued the tradition of Maypoles and public festivities.  This tradition obviously relates to land use in its focus on the renewal of the earth and its bounty going into the new summer.

Then in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, May Day became a nearly universal labor holiday known as International Workers Day, as well as a day that became associated with socialism and communism.  Because the American Labor Day is not until September, I always assumed that this must have some European or Soviet origin.  But my exhaustive Wikipedia-based research for this post led me to realize that May 1 as International Workers Day originated right here in the U.S. of A., thanks to the 1886 Haymarket Riots in Chicago, where police fired shots into the crowd at a worker's strike after a bomb exploded.  This galvanized the interational labor movement, which led the Second International to declare May 1 as International Workers Day in 1889.  In fact, the reason the American Labor Day is set in September seems to have been a desire to disassociate it with the Haymarket anniversary.  Any time we're talking about riots, strikes, public demonstrations, or urban politics, there is always a host of land use issues involved.

The theme of May 1 as an international labor day has led some of the Occupy Movement to plan to Occupy May 1 to urge a general strike and as a chance to relaunch their protest movement in cities around the world.  The Occupy Movement deserves some further study for the interesting land use issues it presents, both in terms of its attempts to, well, "occupy" public and private spaces in cities, and also for its organization of those spaces-- I have heard from more than one observer that in some of the Occupy encampments they have instituted an informal sort of zoning apparatus.  At this hour it seems that the Occupy May Day affairs have been generally peaceful

Another prominent commemoration of May 1 in the U.S. comes with Law Day.  While not widely known outside the legal profession, bar associations across the land have programs to celebrate and educate members on the importance of law (e.g., today I went to the local bar's Law Day banquet to recognize a major award earned by one of my students).  Land use law being a field of growing importance in the profession, it goes without saying that any commemoration of law generally should include a nod to those who practice land use law in our communities.  I had thought that Law Day was mostly an inside-baseball event for lawyers and bar organizations, but again (thanks to Wikipedia) I just learned that the origin of Law Day was really an anti-communist maneuver.  In response to the growing importance of May 1 in the communist and particularly the Soviet sphere (think back to parades of tanks and nuclear missiles down the central square), President Eisenhower declared the first Law Day as a celebration of the rule of law and its critical importance to democracy and civilization.  The commemoration of Law Day is codified at 36 U.S.C. 113.

So whether you celebrate May 1 for it's pagan/Christian celebration of earthly renewal; it's relevance to the international labor movement and urban politics; or for it's commemoration of the importance of the rule of law in society, May Day has an important relationship with land use.  The last use of the term "Mayday," as a distress signal, comes not from the first day of this month, but rather from the French venez m'aider (come help me).  The only academic connection I can think of from that usage, however, is that it is perhaps being muttered right now by the students who are taking my exam tomorrow.

Matt Festa

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