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There are any number of reasons for celebrating May Day, the first day of May:  As a Pagan high holy day, an ancient fertility festival that could cause St. Valentine to blush, a Wiccan holiday, a saint’s feast day, or as International Workers’ Day. 

May Day is one of the oldest holidays in the world, originally celebrated as the Festival of Beltane by the ancient Druids throughout the British Isles.  To the Druids, Beltane was the second most important day of the year, with Samhane, on November 1, being number one.  Those days neatly divided the year in half to the Druids, and both are half-way points (more or less) between the solstices.  (Beltane)

Beltane, falling in the spring, was the Druid New Year.   As such, it involved ritual cleansing, and nothing cleans better than fire.  Beltane, which in Celtic means “fires of Bel,” was originally a fire festival, and still is in many places in Britain.  Cattle, for instance, were passed between (or over) fires as a way of purifying them and insuring fertility in the coming season.  (Beltane)

But, more than anything else, and undoubtedly cementing its popularity, Beltane was a fertility rite. (History and Origin)  In short, “...it was a time of unabashed sexuality and promiscuity...” where even marriages were ignored for one night. (Herne)  If not an outright orgy, it certainly came close.  If this were their second favourite holiday, you have to wonder what kind of party they were having in November.

By the time the Romans arrived in the British Isles, they were already celebrating the 1st of May that fell within Floralia – a five day celebration honoring Flora, the goddess of flowers.  Beltane and Floralia combined to give us, more or less, the May Day that we now know.  (History and Origin)

It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that Maypoles became popular, though trees have always represented fertility and virility.  Almost every village in Britain came to have a Maypole.  Some were erected solely for the holiday, but in larger towns, such as London, the poles were permanent. (History and Origin)  It wasn’t until the 19th century that Maypoles became braided with streamers that dancers would use as part of their merriment, which included entrapping the person you wished to marry, if only in the very loosest sense of the word, and if only for the night. (Ross)  And along with May Poles were May Baskets.  May Baskets were flowers that were left on people’s doorsteps, generally those who were not able to attend the festivities, or a way of letting somebody know your amorous intentions. (Fox)

The Puritans, as wont they should, discouraged the practice of May Day, seeing it as the Pagan celebration that it was.  When everybody finally got tired of the Puritans, the celebrations returned, but never to their prior glory. (History and Origin)

And who hasn’t celebrated Walpurgisnacht?  The first of May happens to be one of several days that have been set aside to honor St. Walburga, who “helped St. Boniface bring Christianity to 8th Century Germany.”  (Ross)

To fully understand how May Day morphed into International Workers’ Day, one must understand the Industrial Revolution, and that means we’re back in England.  Whereas the Industrial Revolution was truly a revolution in that it caused profound and lasting changes to the entire world, unlike other political revolutions it was much slower, and as such, we can’t point to an Independence Day or a Bastille Day that clearly marks the beginning. (Montagna)

Throughout the 18th century there were improvements in agriculture, such as crop rotation, irrigation, pest control, and improved implements, all which made it possible to feed more people with less farmers.  As well, there were improvements in technology that made the entire idea of a factory possible.  And this created a demand for factory workers at the same time fewer farmers were needed, making it possible and profitable for populations to shift from the country to the city.  A good example of this is the British textile industry.  Inventions such as the flying shuttle, the rolling spinner, and the jenny steadily moved what was once a labour-intensive cottage industry to urban-based factories. (Montagna)

But more importantly, there were significant improvements in energy.  At first, factories had to be located near the power source, such as running water, or simply near the raw resources, such as with iron ore.  Steam made it possible to locate a factory virtually anywhere, such as existing population centers or near a seaport.  As well, improvements in transportation, namely the railways, made it possible to reliably move raw goods to the factories, as well as distribute the finished product, and even move workers.  And those workers moved to the cities. (Montagna)

Growth in cities was generally unregulated, with no thought of how to handle so many people living in so small an area.  Cities became “crowded, dirty and unregulated.”  And conditions in the factories were worse.  Typically, work days were 12-14 hours long, often seven days a week, and included women and children, which were preferred over men, because they were more nimble and could be paid less. (Montagna)

The factories were unhealthy at best, and down-right dangerous at worse.  There was no such thing as workers’ compensation, health benefits, or even sick days.  Unless you worked, you were replaced.  Workers were seen as nothing more than a disposable commodity.  Any number of Charles Dickens’ books, such as Oliver Twist and Hard Times, as well as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, offers a fairly accurate insight into the lives of workers both in Great Britain and the United States. (Montagna)

It was a slow process for the workers to realize that they could change the conditions they were forced to live and work under, and they realized that change could only come about if they were united. (Montagna)

The idea of having a “workers’ holiday” originated in Australia on April 21, 1856.  It was basically a one day general strike in support of an eight hour work day, and not intended to be a yearly celebration, which showed the workers that, through solidarity, they could enact changes in the workplace, as well as their living conditions in general. (Luxumburg)

America was the next country to take up the cause, 30 years later in 1886.  And it was the Americans that decided “the day of universal work stoppage” should be May 1.  On that day over 200,000 workers left work and demanded an eight hour work day.  Unfortunately, the American workers were met with violent resistance by those who feared it would lead to Socialism, or a lower profit margin, and so, by any means, they must be stopped. (Luxumburg)

Ironically, it was the Hay Market Massacre, which happened in 1886 in Chicago, Illinois, that led to May Day being celebrated as the International Workers’ Day, an official holiday in over 60 countries throughout the world. (Chase)  Following a non-violent May Day celebration that year, a second demonstration in favour of an eight hour work day was called for on the 3rd of May.  Rumours that the speakers were agitating for violence (which they clearly were not) caused the police to begin dispersing an already thinning crowd, at which point a bomb was thrown into the police ranks.  It has never been clear who threw the bomb, but it nonetheless caused the police to fire into the crowd.  At least eight demonstrators were killed, as well as eight policemen.  As a result, several of the organizers were arrested and eventually hung for the deaths of the police, deaths they clearly did not cause (some weren’t even present during the massacre).  It was ostensibly their political views that went counter to big business for which they were executed. (Chase)

In Europe, just three years later, 400 delegates from throughout the world met at the International Workers’ Congress, where they demanded an eight hour work day and decided the way to achieve that would be through a world-wide work stoppage, on May 1st.  Even after their demand for an eight hour work day was achieved, May Day continued to be celebrated as an International Workers’ Holiday, especially in communist countries such as Cuba and the former Soviet Union. (Luxumburg)

Using “May Day” as a distress word, though, has nothing to do with any of the various holidays that fall on the first of May.  Rather, it comes from the French phrase for “Come help me,” “Venez m’aider,” which is pronounced (more or less) “ven-nay may-day.”  It is always given three times in a row to keep it from being confused with somebody asking about a possible “Mayday,” or perhaps simply planning this year’s celebration.  In the United States, it is a federal offense to broadcast a false “Mayday.” (Mayday)


Work Cited

“Beltane.”  06 July 2007.  BBC:  Religions.  13 Aug. 2012.    http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/paganism/holydays/beltane_1.shtml

Chase, Eric.  “The Brief Origins of May Day.”  1993.  Industrial Workers of the World:  A Union for All Workers.  13 Aug. 2012.  http://www.iww.org/en/history/library/misc/origins_of_mayday

Fox, Selena.  “Beltane Lores and Rites.”  2012.  Circle Sanctuary.  13 Aug. 2012.  http://www.circlesanctuary.org/pholidays/beltane.htm

Herne.  “Beltane.”  2010.  The Celtic Connection.  13 Aug. 2012.  http://wicca.com/celtic/akasha/beltane.htm

“History and Origin.”  TheHolidaySpot.com.  13 Aug. 2012.    http://www.theholidayspot.com/mayday/history.htm

Luxumburg, Rosa.  “What Are the Origins of May Day?”  1894.  Marxist.org.  13 Aug. 2012.  http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1894/02/may-day.htm

“Mayday.”  15 June 2012.  Wikipedia.  13 Aug. 2012.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mayday

Montagna, Joseph A.  “The Industrial Revolution.”  2012.  Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.  13 Aug. 2012.  http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1981/2/81.02.06.x.html

Ross, Samuel.  “May Day:  A cornucopia of holidays.”  2012.  Infoplease.comhttp://www.infoplease.com/spot/mayday.html