Majówka: The Long Holiday Weekend

It’s been a cold spring here this year but the promise of warmer weather is heading our way, just in time for the May holidays. Known as majówka, this series of public holidays – 1 May, 2 May, and 3 May – give us a long weekend here in Poland and have come to be know as the official start to the grilling season. This “long weekend” (because no matter when they fall in week, people still tend to extend their holiday), celebrates Labor Day (Święto Pracy), Flag Day (Dzień Flagi), and Constitution Day (Święto Narodowe 3 Maja).

A graphic from 1936 depicting majówka celebrations

Labor Day - Święt0 Pracy

Labor Day’s roots reach back to 1890 in Poland, when the socialist holiday was first celebrated to honor a worker’s strike in Chicago in the United States (known as the Haymarket Affair) which brought about the 8-hour working day.

Labor Day became a public holiday in Poland in 1950, supported strongly by the Polish communist party. During the time of the Polish People’s Republic, it was one of the most important holidays in the country, embodying the values of the government. In the 1980s, during the height of the Solidarity movement, the holiday was know to act as a day of illegal protests against the government.

Since the fall of Communism in Poland, the holiday is still commonly referred to as Labor Day but has morphed into May Day, a day many countries observe to celebrate the spring. May Day is an ancient pagan festival honoring the rebirth and renewal of the Earth as well as fertility and success in the coming year.

Because of Poland’s more recent history, the importance of 1 May was historically on Labor Day. But as the country has a rich pagan history, and as Poles perform other rituals associated with the coming of spring, the day’s metamorphosis into May Day has taken on the role as the unofficial start of the summer holiday season in Poland.

A sign on a building facade for the Labor Day celebrations in Poland in 1978. It reads "The youth co-creates the future of the socialist homeland"
A flyer from 1906 promoting the socialist party in Poland and calling for an 8-hour workday
A magazine cover celebrating Labor Day in 1905
The last Polish People's Republic Labor Day celebration in Poland in 1989

Flag Day - Dzień Flagi Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej

Flag Day is the newest addition to the Polish public holiday calendar, having only been added in 2004. Poles do not have this day off from work, unlike Labor Day or Constitution Day, but most end up taking the day in order to extend their vacations. It is also celebrated as Polish Diaspora (Polonia) Day in other parts of the world with a significant Polish population.

Flag Day was established as a day to commemorate and reflect on Polish history, as it is sandwiched between two other historically significant national holidays. The day is celebrated with parades and demonstrations and, as a more common observance, Poles tend to wear national cockades (as they also do on Independence Day, 11 November).

If you’re curious to learn about the specifications of the Polish flag, the crest, or the national anthem, you can refer to this guide (in Polish).

Constitution Day - Święto Narodowe 3 Maja

Arguably the most important day of the 3-day majówka is Constitution Day, which celebrates the oldest written constitution in Europe and the second oldest written constitution in the world (after the United States’ Constitution).

The 3 May Constitution was enacted in 1791 and sought to reform the monarchy in Poland (then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) by limiting the power the nobility (szlachta) had on governmental affairs. The constitution also re-established a hereditary monarchy in Poland – quite early in Polish history, it had been replaced in favor of an elective monarchy which did not always have Poland’s best interest in mind.

The constitution was, in essence, a last-chance effort to spare Poland from it’s looming fate; the problems within the country threatened it just as much as its neighbors to the west, east, and south did. The szlachta held a firm grip on governmental affairs while a series of check and balances meant that Poland’s kings were unable to make executive decisions. Weakened internally, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned by its neighbors three times: first in 1772, then in 1793, and finally in 1795, when the country was wiped from the map completely.

The 3 May Constitution is celebrated in Poland for being one of the most prominent Enlightenment-era documents. In it, it grants freedom of religion and trade and establishes the judicial, legislative, and executive functions of the government. The constitution was only effective for 19 months; it can be considered a final act in a desperate attempt to preserve Polish independence, something the authors took into consideration when drafting the document. Although it was a futile effort, the Polish nation was able to survive the next 123 years, even without an independent state, thanks in part to the hope the constitution inspired.

The cover of a piano march written to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the 3 May Constitution in 1916
A lithograph by Jan Piotr Norblin from 1791 depicting the enaction of the 3 May Constitution

Now that you’re familiar with what majówka is and what it celebrates, go out and grill – the weather is too nice to be inside! 

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