Tomorrow, the first day of May, is often called May Day and it has been observed as a special day in widely diverse ways. In addition, Mayday is an international radio-telephone signal word used as a distress call.
In the Northern Hemisphere, May Day is an ancient spring festival and is observed as such in some countries. Although it was a long time ago, I remember hearing about giving “May baskets” and dancing around a “Maypole” on May Day. These practices have now largely fallen into disuse.
But in 1967, the first full year I lived in Japan, I learned about a different type of May Day. Especially back then, May Day was celebrated in Japan and in many other countries as International Workers’ Day. Mainly in that connection, May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and celebrated unofficially in many other countries.
Actually, though, the observance of May 1 as Workers’ Day has a long history in this country. In October 1884, a convention held by the American Federation of Labor (under its previous name) unanimously set May 1, 1886, as the date by which the eight-hour work day would become standard.
As the chosen date approached, labor unions prepared for a general strike in support of the eight-hour workday. On Saturday, May 1, 1886, rallies were held throughout the nation. Estimates of the number of striking workers across the U.S. range from 300,000 to half a million.
But the eight-hour day did not become a reality until 1938, when the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act made eight hours the legal day’s work throughout the nation. Extra pay (time and a half at least) had to be given to those who worked more than eight hours in a day.
Five years earlier, though, a remarkable woman began a movement mostly to help those who were living in poverty because of lack of work or because of low wages. That woman was Dorothy Day (1897-1980). Although she had lived a bohemian life for several years, in 1927 she became a Catholic and then increasingly sought to follow the teachings of Jesus. (I have written about her previously.)
On May 1, 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, The Catholic Worker newspaper made its debut with a first issue of twenty-five hundred copies. Dorothy Day and a few others hawked the paper in Union Square for a penny a copy (still the price) to passersby.” (This is the opening paragraph on the Catholic Worker website.)
The Catholic Worker Movement (CWM) is rooted in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person. So in addition to the newspaper, the CWM has sought through the years to provide meals and lodging for needy people.
Today 213 Catholic Worker communities across the nation remain committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken. Catholic Workers continue to protest injustice, war, racism, and violence of all forms.
I have before me the March-April issue of “The Catholic Worker,” which is only published seven times a year now. It contains a review of the new (2012) book “Saved by Beauty: A Spiritual Journey with Dorothy Day,” which I look forward to reading.
And just last week June and I enjoyed watching “Entertaining Angels,” the 1996 movie about the life and work of Day.
Please join me in giving thanks for the inspiring life of Dorothy Day and the widespread influence of “The Catholic Worker,” first published 80 years ago tomorrow, on May Day, 1933.