José Luis Ledesma
‘[May Day is celebrated] year after year, without interruption’, wrote the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno (1907), ‘and this celebration seems to assume a ritual, a liturgical character. The value of these rituals is enormous, as long as their spirit is faithfully remembered’ (p. 2). These words were written in 1907, before this annual festivity had been fully consolidated and at this time only referred to the socialist celebration; its anarchist counterpart was discreetly overlooked.
In 1907, the meaning of May Day was still under construction. Other events to come, events that were to transform May Day and the whole of Spanish society — a civil war, a dictatorship that was to last 40 years, and the restoration of liberal democracy from 1975 — could not even be imagined at this stage. Unamuno, however, had already perceived the ritual dimension of the celebration, which was repeated ‘year after year’. It would appear that he had even understood the performative value of the rituals, which would be preserved ‘as long as their spirit is faithfully remembered’.
Over the last 125 years, this spirit has grown and has become more solid – it has changed, suffered from repression and re-emerged, only to vanish, or at the very least become hardly recognizable, in more recent times. In this chapter we aim to present a brief overview of the history of May Day in Spain, including its more significant milestones, personalities and meanings.