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May 1: Marching for work, chopping trees for love

First day of May is a day you are hardly ever going to miss. From International Workers Day, through various religious feasts, all the way to Constitutional Days in Latvia or Argentina, everyone seems to have some reason to celebrate.  In Slovakia, this day brings mixture of folklore traditions and nostalgic remembrance of not-so-far past.

Parade you couldn´t miss

If there is any single day perfectly representing what life used to be like for Slovaks during communism, it must be this one. The May 1 parade was something you simply couldn´t miss. And if we say COULDN´T – we mean it! Kids were taken directly from schools and adults of all professions couldn´t escape it either. Everyone was supposed to spend this day in the streets, showing off their endless happiness and gratefulness for their socialistic lives.  Every hand held some transparent, banner, flag – or even photograph of some beloved political leader. Every face wore the widest smile.

May 1 parades in the streets were mandatory for everyone.

However, if this makes you believe Slovaks now remember this day as pure evil, you would be surprised. Forced or voluntary, this day was all about celebrating. Old friends were meeting; colleagues had a chance to unwind. Children enjoyed it probably most of all, because it was simply crazy, colorful and noisy. Brass band music screamed from loudspeakers, while roads were accommodating the most eclectic procession of floats and marching groups.

Of course, it seems pretty ridiculous from the contemporary perspective (see the video below) and you can´t be blamed if this resembles North Korea to you. But go on and ask your grannies how they used to spend this day in their youth! First May parades surely weren´t something exclusively Slovak…

Big, straight and beautiful…

Slovaks, of course, had their own unique culture long before socialistic era. And their colorful folklore offers completely different solution for May 1 celebration.

First May is traditionally recognized as an official beginning of warm and sunny part of year. And the whole month of May is believed to be the most suitable month for love and romance. First of these factors gave birth to widely-spread tradition of erecting the Maypole – young tree trunk (commonly from spruce, fir or birch) decorated with colorful batons. This symbolic victory of spring over winter can be found in most European folklore traditions – it´s nothing specifically Slovak. But combine this with Slovak saying “May – time of love”  (Máj – lásky čas) and you will get charming little tradition Slovaks can (most probably 🙂 ) claim as their own: Erecting Maypoles infront of the windows of young girls!

Boys erecting maypole in Kysuce.
Boys erecting Maypole in Kysuce.

When girl found a Maypole under her window, she had a reason to be proud and happy. Young lad who gave his effort to erect it did so to show serious intention to make her his wife! The bigger, more straight and beautiful his tree was, the bigger was the chance that girl is going to agree. Her consent was traditionally symbolized by offering him good meal and strong spirit, sometimes boys even deserved some hand-made presents showing off girl´s skills (shirts, scarves etc.)

Labor Day without labor

Thought both of these May 1 traditions were nationwide observed only in past, both of them have in one way or another survived until today. While the folklore variation can be still seen mostly in villages and smaller towns, nostalgic parades slightly resembling socialistic fiestas are being from time to time organized in bigger cities.

In fact, there is still one tradition all Slovaks are really looking for when May 1 approaches –it´s an official Labor Day and thus (almost) nobody has to work or attend school! Of course, this is much more fun when May 1 isn´t coinciding with Sunday like it does this year…

If you happen to be in Slovakia these days and want to see some of its May 1 traditions, try to visit cities Malacky, Trenčín, Partizánske, Oravská Lesná and some others, which organize interesting events.

What do you think?

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