May Day. What is it? Why is it?

 [San Juan Silver Stage | May 2021 | Kathryn R. Burke]

By the time you read this, May Day 2021 is history. But it has a long history. Some of it may be more familiar—fun, flower filled, and festive based on pagan traditions celebrating spring. But there is also a grimmer side to May Day, rooted in labor conditions brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Modern-day May Day ceremonies vary greatly throughout the U.S., and many unite both reasons for celebrating the first of May.(4)

Traditional Maypole dance from England with circle formed of dancers interweaving. Detail from 19th Century drawing. Source: Encycolpaedia Britannica.

Maypoles and May Baskets to Celebrate Spring

By most accounts, May Day began as a Celtic holiday, Beltane, celebrating the beginning of spring (in the Northern Hemisphere) and the end of a long, cold winter. The Celts believed the holiday separated light from dark, fertility from barrenness, and they observed the season with fire, heralding the return of new life.(1) Romans dedicated their version of spring’s arrival to Flora, the goddess of flowers. During Floralia, women decorated themselves and their homes with blossoms.(5)

In medieval times, as the fertility celebrations continued, another tradition began: the maypole, a tree colorfully decorated with the signs of spring. Some say it symbolized male fertility. Baskets of flowers and wreaths, more aligned with female fertility, were also incorporated, and some began to call the observance May Basket Day. In small villages and large cities, a May King and May Queen were crowned and people danced around the maypole, often adorned with garlands of flowers.(2)

Over time, although much of the original intent was lost and our civilization became less agrarian-based, the festive holiday was still a popular one. Just about everyone welcomes spring. However, May Day never took off in the New World, probably because the Puritans—those same stalwart folks who burned “witches” at the stake (maypole?)—viewed the entire concept as licentious, even though they, too, depended on the fertility of crops and livestock. By the 19th and 20th centuries, May Day had a more universal acceptance on both sides of the pond. Celebrants began dancing, in costume, around maypoles, and baskets of flowers, candles, and other gifts were hung on doors of friends and neighbors.(1)

Although many of the spring festival customs have died out, by the late 20th century, we saw a comeback. Many neopagans began reconstructing some of the older pagan festivals and combining them with more recently developed European secular and Catholic traditions to celebrate May Day as a pagan religious festival.(4) For others, it’s just a great day to have a good time and welcome spring.

The Haymarket Riot, Chicago. May 1, 1886. (Granger)

May Day Remembers the Labor Movement

May 1st has other connotations as well, grim reminders of the horrendous and inhumane working conditions brought about by the industrial economy that replaced agriculture. May Day is the original Labor Day, recognized as the establishment of the eight-hour workday. The designation came about after the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (that would later become the American Federation of Labor, or AFL) proclaimed “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”(1)(3)

It began on May 1, 1886, when “more than 300,000 workers from 13,000 businesses 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.”(1) May 3rd, during the ensuing and violent Haymarket Riot, at least 15 people died. This led to a trial where a biased jury convicted eight men of anarchy (without evidence). Seven received the death sentence.(3)

A few years after the Haymarket Riot and subsequent trials that 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.(1)

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

Note: The international distress call, “mayday,” has nothing to do with the holiday. The term was coined in 1923 by Frederick Mockford, a radio officer in London, because it sounded like m’aider, a shortened version of the French term for “come and help me.”(1)



2 May Day, European seasonal holiday.

3 The Real History of May Day. Lifehacker.

4 Wikipedia.

5 Conde Nast Traveler.