labour days are ever less significant in iceland

Though poverty in Iceland is nowhere near as severe as the poverty in some places in Canada, let alone in Third World countries, the first of May is…

Though poverty in Iceland is nowhere near as severe as the poverty in some places in Canada, let alone in Third World countries, the first of May is still a national holiday.

This day is one of two labour days in Iceland, and its roots lie in socialism.

The origin of the celebration can be traced to the international group of socialists in Paris at the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.

The first labour demonstration in Iceland took place in Reykjavik in 1923, and ever since the day has been celebrated each year with demonstrations, parades and outdoor meetings throughout the country.

But celebrations were held on this day long before labour issues came to the fore. 

For centuries this day has been celebrated as a spring festival in Europe.

Many European countries consider May the first month of summer, so quite naturally, many celebrated the beginning of summer on this day.

(In Iceland, the first day of summer falls in April.)

As Christianity spread, May 1 was celebrated as a Christian holiday, first as Two Apostles’ Mass and later as Walpurgis Mass.

The two apostles were Philippe and Jacob the Younger, and that festival appears to be older than Walpurgis Mass.

Walpurgis, or Valborg as she is called in Icelandic, is said to have been the daughter of King Saint Richard of England. After her death in late 700s, drops were found on her grave, which were supposed to be medicine for various diseases.

Walpurgis was very popular in Germany, where on the night before May 1, fires were lit on hills and heaths to protect people, in her name, against witchcraft — a tradition probably originally belonging to the pagan spring festival.

The origins of today’s Labour Day festivities lie in 1886, when Americans ceased work on this day to demand an eight-hour workday.

Three years later, a group of socialists met at an international Marxist convention in Paris to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.

The 400 participants decided to turn May 1 into International Labour Day.

A year later, demonstrations demanding an eight-hour work day were held in most European countries, North America, Chile, Peru and Cuba.

Icelanders first marched on May 1 around Reykjavík’s few streets in 1923.

According to ethnologist Árni Björnsson, a group of people lined up by the little lake in the centre of town, Tjörnin, at 1:30 p.m., starting where the city hall stands now, and marched around central Reykjavík, demanding higher wages for workers.

Since then, the day has been marked by a similar celebration each year, with only the most necessary services kept open, such as the emergency room at the hospital, and police.

The day has long been celebrated, and business owners have given their workers the day off, on full pay.

But capitalism is changing Iceland, along with the rest of the world.

Now, though most retail stores are closed on this day, all gas stations are open, as well as many grocery stores, and more and more companies.

Though students and most public workers are off, many smaller companies give their staff only half a day off on pay, rather than a full day, and leave it up to the workers to decide whether to take the rest of it off without pay, or work.

Still, the unions celebrate; parades line the streets, kids wave the Icelandic flag and people demand equal salaries for equal work regardless of gender.

But more and more people just enjoy sleeping in and making use of the long weekend. 

Whether that attitude is due to the pressures of capitalism, apathy, or just the general comfort level of a middle-class nation, I shall not say, but the fact remains, that fewer and fewer Icelanders take part in the May 1 festivities.