History of the May, 1st


May 1st is both an international day and a sacred day among the Celts. True to my habits, I will therefore talk to you a little about my social identity, about Labor Day or Workers’ Day, and finally I will shake things up a bit, since we have had the opportunity to talk about the place of “work” and we are still talking about “work-life balance”. As they say on YouTube: watch until the end (of the article)!

Social Identity: Beltane Festival

In Celtic tradition, May 1st marks the beginning of the Beltane season, a festival dedicated to fertility and the rebirth of nature. Following Samhain, Imbolc and Ostara, Beltane celebrates the arrival of the bright season and is associated with the divine entities of the diurnal part of the Indo-European year, particularly fire. The names of Belenos and Belisama are often associated with it. The “fire of Bel” is a beneficial purification fire summoned by effective incantations, and the fire of Beltane is considered powerful, sacred and strong.

Even today, in regions where Celtic traditions are celebrated, bonfires are lit during the night of Beltane to honor Celtic gods and goddesses. In the past, cattle were driven between the fires to protect them from epidemics for the following year. Celebrants also decorate trees and homes with ribbons and flowers, symbolizing the rebirth of nature and fertility. Maypoles, large poles planted in the ground with ribbons of all colors attached at their top, are still found, with each participant dancing around the pole with a ribbon in hand.

Some suggest that the tradition of offering lilies of the valley on May 1st dates back to the Celtic era. Lily of the valley was considered a sacred plant, a symbol of the goddess of fertility and nature, Beltane. Ephemeral, it was capable of warding off evil spirits and bringing good fortune. Offering sprigs of lily of the valley was therefore a way of celebrating the Beltane festival and bringing blessings to loved ones. This tradition has persisted over the centuries and is still very present today in many countries.

Social History: The Working Class Struggle

In a less joyful sense, May 1st is also an emblematic day for the working class struggle. This day serves as a reminder of the sacrifices made by workers to obtain fundamental rights, particularly the eight-hour workday. This struggle for workers’ rights dates back to the 19th century when workers began fighting for fairer working conditions. Yes, folks: if you don’t work on May 1st and your workday lasts only 8 hours (or even 7, in France), it’s thanks to the working class struggle, not the benevolence of your employers…

In 1886, in Chicago, American workers organized a strike to demand an eight-hour workday. On May 1st, following a mobilization, the police charged the crowd as it was dispersing (sound familiar?).

The result: two protesters were killed and 10 injured. In response, a peaceful demonstration was organized. Again, everything was going smoothly until 180 law enforcement officers charged the few hundred remaining protesters at Haymarket Square, Chicago. A bomb was thrown into the crowd, shots were fired… The outcome: twelve dead and one hundred thirty injured. This tragedy is known as the Haymarket Massacre.

In France, May 1st also holds a tragic memory for workers. On May 1st, 1891, a peaceful demonstration was organized in Fourmies, in northern France, to demand an eight-hour workday (work hours typically ranged from 12 to 15 hours a day, six days a week, in deplorable conditions). The soldiers, equipped with war weapons (the famous Lebel rifle), opened fire on the demonstrators, killing nine people, including four children. Listen here to Franck Ferrand’s account in “Au cœur de l’histoire” (in French): https://youtu.be/mobaEY4zhgI.

Today, May 1st should be celebrated as a day of solidarity among workers. It is important to remember the sacrifices of past workers in order to demand better rights and working conditions, as well as the need for unity in the struggle for a more just and egalitarian society.

Social reality: are you really working?

You know me, it would be difficult for me to write an article without controversy. The word “travail” (work) comes from the Latin “tripalium”, a torture instrument made of three stakes. The word “labeur” (toil), which gives “labour” in English, comes from the Latin “labor”: pain, suffering, that which causes fainting and collapses the body. These etymologies reveal the negative origin of this term “travail” which, for Judeo-Christians, is a divine punishment inflicted on humans after the fall of Adam and Eve. It used to be reserved for slaves, peasants, and workers, while nobles and aristocrats were exempt from this burden. Exempted, even prohibited: a nobleman who wanted to work a field had to do it with a sword at his waist so as not to lose his title, and commercial activities were forbidden to nobles.

With the Industrial Revolution, people left their lands and joined the armies of employees and workers. Then, with the outsourcing of our productions to countries with “low labor costs”, tertiary jobs exploded, and our active populations became “Mexican armies”. In France, for example, there are more than 5.2 million “executives” for 27 million employed workers: one boss for 5 employees! Moreover, almost 80% of these employed workers work in the tertiary sector.

The definition of work has thus expanded to include intellectual activities such as research, business management, or artistic creation. But this raises an essential question: is everything we call “work” really “real” work? Shouldn’t we distinguish between what is truly exhausting and what is not? Real work, in the etymological sense of the term, should be physically exhausting and lead to real fatigue. In other words, it should be what “collapses” the body, like factory workers (even those who make your t-shirts on the other side of the world), miners, farm workers, truck drivers, delivery workers, garbage collectors, sewer workers, servers, housekeepers and maids, gardeners, road workers, but also surgeons, nursing assistants, home care workers… These “essential” professions that were praised during the Covid crisis only to be returned to our disdain once it was over.

I therefore find it inaccurate to call activities that do not exhaust the body “work”, and whose greatest occupational hazard often consists of cutting a finger with the edge of a sheet of paper. For these activities, it would be more appropriate to speak of professional activities or, as in English, occupations. Indeed, this would avoid trivializing the meaning of the word “work” and would highlight the value of the physical effort necessary for the production and manufacture of goods and services.

Oh, I understand well that my LinkedIn colleagues, most of whom do not have physical jobs and whose main physical activity is on treadmills or in Zumba classes, are likely to disagree with me and say, “Hey, you first! It’s the pot calling the kettle black.” And I’m not even talking about my students, exhausted by a privilege that a good portion of the planet’s inhabitants are deprived of… So I want to say yes, I consider that today I have a professional activity that is not a job. I “worked,” when I was younger, during my vacations or my studies: as a farm worker, a manual laborer, a server… And it is precisely this that allows me to consider my current position as a privilege. I also believe that this is what allows me not to treat people who have difficult jobs like s… Or to consider that a stay-at-home parent is working while the average paper-pusher is not.

As is often the case, people will refer me to the concept of “mental load” or “burnout.” However, these difficulties are not related to the tasks themselves: I have accompanied many people who have experienced burnout; the problem always comes from an overload of tasks or a toxic environment, almost never from the work itself. People love their occupation but not its conditions. This can be compared to the lifestyle of a farmer, for example, whose day begins before dawn and ends at night (and during the harvests, in the middle of the night!), or that of a cook, a baker (a real one), or a butcher: who handle heavy bags, pieces of meat, heavy utensils all day long. Think for a moment about the workers in slaughterhouses, a profession that holds the record for Musculoskeletal Disorders and occupational diseases.

Finally, when I talk about “exhausting the body,” it doesn’t just mean “being very tired,” it means exhausting like a battery, like a stock, being exhausted. The category of “difficult jobs” that we should simply call “work” is the one with the lowest life expectancy (as well as income, incidentally). What is, in the end, the suffering of a “job” that contains no occupational risk, that allows you to be in the highest-paid categories, and that assures you of the longest life expectancy.

Words have meaning. And in fact, dear reader, there is every chance that your professional activity is not a job. This is not an insult, and you should at the very least acknowledge it and at best rejoice in it.

Happy Labor Day, Happy Beltane!

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