Mayday mayday, it’s May Day: The holiday with many faces

By Erica Quinones

The history of May Day is varied, involving celebrations of springtime frolicking, workers’ rights, law, and at a certain small liberal arts college, spirited youth.

While Washington College students indulge in a festive tradition that includes a sprint across the Campus Green in various stages of undress, historical celebrations embraced going all natural in a different manner.

May 1 stands as an important day both astronomically and agriculturally. Standing halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, it divides the year between the light and dark months. As such, its originating holiday, Beltane, centered that light and its associated themes.

Beltane, or “Day of Fire,” was originally celebrated by the Celts. During the holiday, its celebrants would light large bonfires and dance in the night to represent the return of light and fertility to the world.

When the Roman Empire conquered the British Isles, they brought with them their own springtime celebration, Floralia, which was devoted to the goddess of flowers, Flora.

According to the University of Chicago, Floralia was observed for five days at the end of April and beginning of May. Observers celebrated with games, farces, theatre, and gladiatorial combat. Deer and hares were released in the circus as symbols of fertility, and the prostitutes of Rome had a gay time as they regarded the day as their own.

The two contemporary celebrations were eventually combined under Beltane.

Themes of fertility became particularly prominent in May Day celebrations as represented by the maypole.

Besides being an iconic Shakespearean insult, the maypole is central to May Day iconography both in medieval times and today.

Originally, the maypole was a living tree chosen from the woods by villagers. Set up in the town, the day’s festivities saw the pole being decorated with colorful ribbons with which merrymakers dance, wrapping them around it.

While some historians theorize that the maypole dance began as a fertility ritual, it also signified the possibility of courtship for younger celebrators. If a young woman and man paired up by sundown, their relationship could continue until a possible marriage six weeks later on June’s Midsummer’s Day, ushering in another tradition: the June wedding.

Other common festivities reflected the floral inspiration of Floralia, including the gathering of wildflowers and green branches, weaving of garlands and baskets, and the crowning of a May king and queen.

While these festivities were popular in the British Isles, they did not take root in the United States because the day’s festivities were discouraged by the Puritans. The maypole specifically never gained popularity in the Americas; however, May Basket Day did gain prominence during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The version of May Day that did take hold in the United States (at least temporarily) is more political.

During the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions’ 1884 convention, they proclaimed that an eight-hour day should constitute a legal work day beginning on May 1, 1886. The Knights of Labor backed the proclamation a year later and both groups encouraged workers to strike.

On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers across the country walked out of their jobs.

Two days later, workers and police clashed at the McCormick Reaper Works, and a rally was planned at Haymarket Square the following day.

As police advanced to disperse the rally, an unidentified person threw a bomb into their ranks, leaving at least seven police officers and eight civilians dead.

In August, eight men who were labeled as anarchists were convicted in a sensational trial that lacked evidence linking the defendants to the bombings. Seven of the men received the death sentence.

A few years after the Haymarket Affair, a coalition of socialists and labor parties in Europe called for a demonstration to honor the convicted men. Over 300,000 people protested at an 1890 May Day rally in London.

May Day is now an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in others; although it is not often recognized in the United States.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower even tried to distance May Day from its roots in 1958, declaring it as “Law Day.”

The many faces of May Day make it an intriguing entry on holiday calendars, even if its local festivities are preluded by an excited howl.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Featured Photo Caption: As a tradition, May Day wears many faces – from its history as a worker’s holiday to its significance as a Celtic celebration, the first of May is important for many reasons historically.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *