Happy May Day - The History of May Day Celebrations

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A Basket of Flowers is a more Modern Approach to May Day as seen in Artist Rene Sepulveda's Sculpture Abstract Art piece called "Stark" A Celebration of New Mexico Spring

Happy May Day 2021…

May Day is a public holiday usually celebrated on May 1. It is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival. It is also a traditional spring holiday in many cultures. Dances, singing, and cake are usually part of the celebrations that the day includes.

The Celts of the British Isles believed May 1 to be the most important day of the year, when the festival of Beltane was held.

This May Day festival was thought to divide the year in half, between the light and the dark. Symbolic fire was one of the main rituals of the festival, helping to celebrate the return of life and fertility to the world.

When the Romans took over the British Isles, they brought with them their five-day celebration known as Floralia, devoted to the worship of the goddess of flowers, Flora. Taking place between April 20 and May 2, the rituals of this celebration were eventually combined with Beltane. The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, held on April 27 during the Roman Republic era, and with the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane, most commonly held on April 30. The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer.

As Europe became Christianised, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and May Day changed into a popular secular celebration. A significant celebration of May Day occurs in Germany where it is one of several days on which St. Walburga, credited with bringing Christianity to Germany, is celebrated.

The secular versions of May Day, observed in Europe and America, may be best known for their traditions of dancing around the maypole and crowning the Queen of May. Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of “May baskets,” small baskets of sweets or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbors’ doorsteps. While the exact origins of the maypole remain unknown, the annual traditions surrounding it can be traced back to medieval times, and some are still celebrated today.

Villagers would enter the woods to find a maypole that was set up for the day in small towns (or sometimes permanently in larger cities). The day’s festivities involved merriment, as people would dance around the pole clad with colorful streamers and ribbons.

Historians believe the first maypole dance originated as part of a fertility ritual, where the pole symbolized male fertility and baskets and wreaths symbolized female fertility.

The maypole never really took root in America, where May Day celebrations were discouraged by the Puritans. But other forms of celebrations did find their way to the New World.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, May Basket Day was celebrated across the country, where baskets were created with flowers, candies and other treats and hung on the doors of friends, neighbors and loved ones on May 1.

What does May Day have to do with the international distress call, "Mayday, Mayday, Mayday"? Nothing, as it turns out. The code was invented in 1923 by an airport radio officer in London. Challenged to come up with a word that would be easily understood by pilots and ground staff in case of an emergency, Frederick Mockford coined the word "mayday" because it sounded like "m'aider," a shortened version of the French term for " come and help me."

International Workers’ Day

The connection between May Day and labor rights began in the United States. During the 19th century, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, thousands of men, women and children were dying every year from poor working conditions and long hours.

In an attempt to end these inhumane conditions, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which would later become the American Federation of Labor, or AFL) held a convention in Chicago in 1884. The FOTLU proclaimed “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”

The following year the Knights of Labor—then America’s largest labor organization—backed the proclamation as both groups encouraged workers to strike and demonstrate.

On May 1, 1886, more than 300,000 workers (40,000 in Chicago alone) from 13,000 business walked out of their jobs across the country. In the following days, more workers joined and the number of strikers grew to almost 100,000.

Haymarket Riot

Overall, the protests were peaceful, but that all changed on May 3 where Chicago police and workers clashed at the McCormick Reaper Works. The next day a rally was planned at Haymarket Square to protest the killing and wounding of several workers by the police.

The speaker, August Spies, was winding down when a group of officers arrived to disperse the crowd. As the police advanced, an individual who was never identified threw a bomb into their ranks. Chaos ensued, and at least seven police officers and eight civilians died as a result of the violence that day.

The Haymarket Riot, also known as the Haymarket Affair, set off a national wave of repression. In August 1886, eight men labeled as anarchists were convicted in a sensational and controversial trial despite there being no solid evidence linking the defendants to the bombing. The jury was considered to be biased, with ties to big business.

Seven of the convicted men received a death sentence, and the eighth was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In the end, four of the men were hanged, one committed suicide and the remaining three were pardoned six years later.

A few years after the Haymarket Riot and subsequent trials shocked the world, a newly formed coalition of socialist and labor parties in Europe called for a demonstration to honor the “Haymarket Martyrs.” In 1890, over 300,000 people protested at a May Day rally in London.

The workers’ history of May 1 was eventually embraced by many governments worldwide, not just those with socialist or communist influences.

May Day Today

Today, in some parts of the United States, May baskets are made. These are small baskets usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone's doorstep. The giver rings the bell and runs away.

Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. vary greatly from region to region and many unite both the holiday's "Green Root" (pagan) and "Red Root" (labour) traditions.

May Day celebrations are more common at women's colleges and academic institutions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a tradition that continues at Bryn Mawr College and Brenau University to this day.

In Minneapolis, the May Day Parade and Festival is presented annually by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre on the first Sunday in May, and draws around 50,000 people to Powderhorn Park. On 1 May itself, local Morris Dance sides converge on an overlook of the Mississippi River at dawn, and then spend the remainder of the day dancing around the metro area.

In Hawaii

In Hawaii, May Day is also known as Lei Day, and it is normally set aside as a day to celebrate island culture in general and the culture of the Native Hawaiians in particular. Invented by poet and local newspaper columnist Don Blanding, the first Lei Day was celebrated on 1 May 1927 in Honolulu. Leonard "Red" and Ruth Hawk composed "May Day Is Lei Day in Hawai'i," the traditional holiday song.

Today, May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more, but ironically it is rarely recognized in the country where it began, the United States of America.

After the 1894 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland officially moved the U.S. celebration of Labor Day to the first Monday in September, intentionally severing ties with the international worker’s celebration for fear that it would build support for communism and other radical causes.

Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to reinvent May Day in 1958, further distancing the memories of the Haymarket Riot, by declaring May 1 to be “Law Day,” celebrating the place of law in the creation of the United States. May Day 2021 is today May 1, 2021.

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