may day balloons

The best thing about state socialist May Days were the balloons. As a kid, I usually got a balloon and cotton candy at the fair after the official parade. The fair–with cheap food, beer and entertainment–was a kind of reward to the people for marching under banners with slogans like “Forward on the road of socialism!”

Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan/Mihály Szent-tamási
Photo: Fortepan
Photo: Fortepan
Photo: Fortepan
Photo: Fortepan
Photo: Fortepan
Photo: Fortepan

The participants of the parades (held in all cities) were organized by workplace: the factories, institutions, schools etc. were supposed to send a certain number of people equipped with banners and paraphernalia representing their workplace and line of work. The choreography and visual appearance of the May Day celebrations did not change much over the decades (the first four pictures are from the 1950s and the last three from the 1970s). By the 1980s they were pretty much empty rituals, which still had a vital function. What was expected from the population was not so much that they believe the slogans (and the ideology behind them) but that they participate–in person or in front of their television sets watching the day-long broadcast from Budapest.

thatcher in budapest

Photo: MTI/Attila Manek
Photo: MTI/Attila Manek

The late Margaret Thatcher visited the Great Market Hall in Budapest in February 1984. I remember what a huge deal the British prime minister’s official visit to Hungary was, the state media making the most of it. Interestingly, the first thing my eighty-six-year-old neighbor–who until recently took the tram to the market hall every week–recalled hearing about Thatcher’s death was that the famous politician once went shopping and bought Hungarian paprika at the Great Market Hall. The image of the Iron Lady observing strings of red peppers is, in fact, one of the iconic images of late state-socialist Hungary.

(Note the circle of overzealous men, the feminizing food shopping and bouquet of flowers and the absence of any other woman in the picture.)

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