A Clash of Two Holidays Gives Poland a May Vacation Appetizer

On a May day some 250 years ago, Poland declared its first-ever constitution. Along with the communist-propagated Labor Day, also in May, the celebrations for two long and storied traditions give just the right excuse for majówka - extended spring celebrations.

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people at Vistula river bank at evening during long may weekend
Two almost-consecutive bank holidays in May celebrating Labor Day (1 May) and Constitution Day (3 May) give Poles the perfect excuse to turn two days off into an extended vacation. Photo: Franciszek Mazur / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

On 3 May 1791, the Polish parliament voted on its so-called Ustawa Rządowa (“The Government Bill”), which was set to become the world’s second constitution (after America’s) in the modern sense of the word. The jubilant nation celebrated its new constitution. Of course, whether MPs knew that the date would remain honored for the next 250 years is a question that will remain unanswered. Whatever the case, they surely didn’t expect another May celebration of an entirely different nature to gain importance a century later. This resulted in majówka – extended May holiday.

International Workers’ Day (also called Labor Day in many countries), celebrated on 1 May, was introduced as a state holiday under socialism. In today’s Poland, both are now national holidays, encouraging Poles to do the sophisticated math of leave days to maximize their extended holiday time.

Polish Constitution Day on 3 May

In the 18th century, the imperial status of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was in decline, and its quickly modernizing neighbors, Prussia, Austria, and Russia, left the Commonwealth (now encompassing parts of present Poland, Baltic countries, Belarus and Ukraine) far behind. To catch up to all the changes in the political environment, Polish reformers overcame significant challenges and passed the constitution, which to this day is known as “The Constitution of 3 May.”

Apart from the symbolic value, the effort eventually failed, as the act lost its power only two years later when the Commonwealth was defeated. Its territory was partitioned among the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian Empires, and Poland ceased to exist for the next 123 years. However, the spark had been ignited, making “Constitution Day” part of the formative myth of modern-day Poland.

Throughout the 19th century, celebrating 3 May was forbidden for all intents and purposes, though many continued to celebrate unofficially and in secret. However, when modern Poland was reinstated in the aftermath of World War I, Constitution Day regained its status as one of the most celebrated feasts in the country. Needless to say, it was again forbidden under the Nazi German occupation, laid dormant under communist rule, and was officially made illegal in 1950 due to its roots in Poland’s aristocratic and royalist history. Then, after the fall of communism in 1989, the national holiday was again joyfully reinstated on 3 May 1990.

International Workers’ Day on 1 May

However, going back to 1950, just as Constitution Day was made illegal, International Workers’ Day became an official national holiday in Poland. The origins of the holiday date back to Paris in 1889, where the Second International, a congress of socialist parties across Europe, declared a day of “great international demonstration” in support of working-class demands for decent work standards. The date was chosen to commemorate the Haymarket Affair in Chicago, where a peaceful protest of workers demanding 8-hour shifts and equal rights for people of color resulted in civil unrest and the prosecution of activists.

The debate on honoring Labor Day in Poland began in 1919, but it only became official in 1950. The free day implied an obligation to participate in peaceful state-held manifestations meant to highlight the solidarity of the working and the ruling class in Poland.

“Majówka,” aka Poland’s long May weekend

As generations of Poles grew up accustomed to the celebration of International Workers’ Day, it was not abolished after democratic reforms. Even the Catholic Church didn’t try to confront the socialist feast, instead giving it their own spin by declaring 1 May the day of St. Joseph the Worker. However, thirsty for cultural icons, Poles also eagerly embraced the return of 3 May celebrations. The close-together dates of the two feasts, along with the warmer May weather, almost begs Poles to take a leave day on 2 May – and if they’re lucky to tie them to an adjacent weekend. With a convenient calendar, this can mean a not-insubstantial 9-day holiday at the cost of only three days of leave.

Following the custom, the Polish government declared 2 May the Polish National Flag Day. Though it’s technically not a bank holiday, it is just enough of a pretext for people to celebrate a bit more. Or is it a cunning way on the side of rulers to demonstrate the commitment of Poles to their flag?

No matter the reason, Poles love their long May holiday – majówka, as they call it. No longer expected to participate in official demonstrations, they now demonstrate their love of the long holiday by leaving town or staging a three-day-long barbecue party in their yards. With such widespread support for majówka custom, both international workers and the Polish constitution can be sure to be honored for centuries to come.

Przemysław Bociąga

is a Polish journalist and essayist based in Warsaw. An anthropologist and art historian by education, he specializes in combining cultural phenomena with compelling narrative. He has authored and co-authored several books covering lifestyle and history. The most recent of them is “Impeccable. The biography of masculine image”. He has contributed to many leading magazines, both in print and online, and teaches cultural anthropology to college students.

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