When I was asked to write something about Labor Day in Romania, I must admit that I was a little disappointed. What could I possibly say about this Communist celebration? But after doing some research and talking with my mother and grandparents who lived through those years, it turned out that in fact, I had much to tell about this day. After reading this article I think you will agree with me – and maybe you will discover some facts that you didn’t know.
The history of May 1st started more than a century ago. In 1889 the International Socialist Congress decreed this day to be International Labor Day to commemorate the sacrifice of the workers who protested for better working conditions in Chicago. The American workers had demanded a work day of eight hours instead of twelve, and on May 1st over 100,000 people demonstrated for their cause. The police intervened and, as so often happens at such moments, some police officers and some demonstrators were killed. After that, more and more workers’ groups and politicians gradually adopted May 1st as International Labor Day, dedicated to all workers who represented the real engine of the global economy and the most valued population group of the socialist countries.
The events in Chicago left a strong impression throughout the world, and many countries gradually adopted the reduction of hours in the work day – in the beginning, just for May 1st but later for the entire year. Labor Day eventually became a day for workers to commemorate their fallen and to demonstrate for their rights, opening a whole new perspective for workers all around the globe.
Labor Day was celebrated in Romania for the first time in 1890, when the country was still a monarchy. After 1947, the political identity of the country had changed radically from monarchy to socialist republic, and so we had a new political regime with new rulers, new laws and new celebrations. But May 1st had always remained more or less the same, at least in the early years.
In the beginning of socialist Romania, we used to consider May 1st the International Day of the Workers. But as Romanian communism became increasingly nationalistic and the country’s rulers became more obsessed with their power, the original meaning of the day was lost. The paradox was that Labor Day wasn’t dedicated to workers anymore, but to the country’s all-powerful politicians and glorifying the great achievements of the Communist Party. This happened not only in Romania, but also earlier in the other socialist countries. What is interesting (and sad) at the same time is that neither Karl Marx nor Lenin had ever worked a single day in a factory. But still, their portraits were carried high and worshipped like icons in religious processions.
In Romania on May 1st, workers were brought from cities and villages against their will to express their “joy” by singing in front of the official parade viewing platforms, first for Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and later for Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu.
Just imagine thousands of workers (including children, who often had to wait outside in the cold and the rain), dressed in festive clothing, carrying huge placards and shouting slogans during the parades to glorify the Communist Party and the “Great Helmsman.” The dictators were only happy if they saw the stadiums, boulevards and squares full of the placards, uniforms, flags and waving scarves which fed their inflated egos.
A strange addition in the last years of the Communist regime was the so-called “Celebration Through Work” on Labor Day. For this, Ceauşescu would come and visit the workers in their plants, construction sites, schools and other work places. I wonder which was worse: being forced to work that day or to participate in those ridiculous parades and celebrations . . . .
Nevertheless, after these manifestations, people could finally enjoy the rest of the day getting together around their barbecues or anywhere else they chose. Younger people would go on a short vacantion to the mountains or to the Black Sea because for them May 1st was not the only day off but May 2nd (Youth Day) as well. 2 Mai sea side resort got its name from those years, when young people came to the sea side and celebrate their free time.
Nowadays May 1st lost its ideological and historical significance and became just a simple date on the calendar. On this day Romanians literally flee the city and run to the mountains, the countryside and the seaside. This is an annual escape from dust, cement, traffic, cars, buses, getting up early, deadlines, always being in a rush, and putting one’s make-up on in the car while waiting for the traffic light to change. But unfortunately, not all young Romanians know the real meaning of this day – they now just have the tradition of getting out of town, camping in the mountains or at the beach, partying all night and sleeping all day. I must admit that I am also one of them, as until recently I had no idea about the true meaning of May 1st – which in any case, I always thought of as just another contrived Communist celebration.
As I end this article, I think it’s important to mention that there are other countries which also celebrate Labor Day – not necessarily on May 1st, but at other times during the year. In the United States, for instance, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September and marks the unofficial end of summer. President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided this in 1958 avoiding the comparison of the festivities organized by American workers with those from the communist countries.
I hope you have enjoyed this short story about the history of May 1st and our memories of past years – and should you be reading this on April 30th, I strongly recommend that you pack your bags quickly and leave town for a brief holiday somewhere in the Romanian seaside. Please accept my suggestion – I’m sure you won’t regret it!About the author:
Valentina is a young lady who works as travel agent. She enjoys the nature, hiking trips or biking rides. Beside these she likes to read a lot.