What is May Day? It's actually several events wrapped in one holiday
Mayday! Mayday! You guessed it: May Day lands on May 1st, and we hope you have your maypoles out and ready. Or perhaps you celebrate May Day with protest signs demanding labor rights. If you’re not acquainted with either form of May Day celebration, let’s back up and explain: What is May Day really all about?
Like many of our modern holidays, May Day has pagan roots. According to History.com, the ancient Celts celebrated the festival of Beltane on May 1st, during which they welcomed in the light part of the year and ushered out the dark. The ancients participated in fire and fertility rituals to honor the sun and the awakening of the green, fertile land.
Later, most likely during medieval times, the maypole was introduced to the May Day party. Celebrants would dance around the maypole while holding and weaving colorful ribbons around it. Historians believe the maypole started as some sort of fertility ritual — the pole representing male fertility and the ribbons and wreaths representing female fertility.
Many European cultures still partake in dancing around the maypole during May Day festivities. But the maypole never really caught on in the U.S., thanks to the Puritans. Instead, 19th- and 20th-century Americans crafted May Day baskets filled with flowers and candies. They would gift these to friends and neighbors.
The 19th century also brought the Industrial Revolution to America. It was during this period that men, women, and children were dying in the factories where they worked due to poor working conditions. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later called the American Federation of Labor) proclaimed that employees should only have to work for eight hours each day beginning on May 1st, 1886.
When May 1st, 1886 arrived, more than 300,000 workers walked out from their jobs on strike.
On May 3rd, conflict in Chicago arose between protesters and the police, resulting in the deaths of two strikers. The next day, at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, a protest was held as a response to the police brutality. A riot broke out and a bomb was thrown into the crowd. Seven officers and at least eight protesters were killed. Another 40 were injured.
Workers around the world still hold protests, rallies, and strikes on May Day to advocate for international workers’ and union members’ rights.
After the original U.S. May Day protests and the Haymarket Riot, President Grover Cleveland moved Labor Day to September to thwart the emerging movement. But even so, many American cities still host labor protests on May 1st.
And if you’re wondering, the “mayday” distress call has nothing to do with May Day. It was the creation of a London-based radio officer who thought “mayday” sounded like m’aider, French for “help me.”
Now that you know the history of May Day, you can figure out how you’re going to celebrate. Dance around the maypole, protest, or simply welcome in spring. There’s no wrong choice, and, hey, if you’re really crafty, you can figure out how to celebrate all three ways.