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May Day: Holiday of Workers, Holiday of Revival

By Stefka Gerova

Upon being asked, many U.S. Americans won't even be able to tell you what May Day (May 1st) is all about, even though this workers' holiday was born in the United States as such. And many more people worldwide don't know that it all started with the labor movement in the U.S., and associate it with Russian communism instead. What's more, May Day is actually a much older holiday, deeply rooted in the pagan traditions of the Celts and the Saxons!


May Day as a holiday of the working class was born in the struggle for an eight-hour work day in the United States and Canada at the end of the nineteenth century. The organized movement of labor unions culminated on May 1, 1886 with peaceful protest demonstrations and strikes of workers all over the U.S. and Canada. The demonstrations were not destined to remain peaceful, however. In Chicago, the heart of the protest movement, the police fired into the crowd on May 3rd, killing four and injuring many more. A rally was called the next day at Haymarket Square to demonstrate against the brutality of the police. Towards the end of the rally, a bomb was thrown at the police as the latter was ordering the people to disperse. What followed was only more blood spilling.

It is still controversial whether the strikers threw the bomb or whether it was thrown by the police itself in order to create a justification for arresting demonstrators. Eight of the leaders of the labor movement were imprisoned; four of them were hanged, one committed suicide and the remaining three were pardoned in 1893.


May Day was then destined to spread around the globe in commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre. The First Congress of the Second Socialist International in Paris in 1889 proclaimed May 1 as the international holiday of working people, and the red flag was taken as a symbol of the blood of the workers who lost their lives (even though the red flag has been much more associated with Russian communism later on). On May 1 the next year, demonstrations took place in the United States, in most European countries, as well as in Chile, Peru and Cuba. It was only in 1891 that the holiday was observed in Russia, contrary to popular beliefs that May Day originated there. Gradually, in the years to come, May 1 was spread all over the world and has become a national holiday in many countries, including most West-European states.


In the U.S., May Day never became a national holiday. Instead, Labor Day was established as an official federal holiday on the first Monday of September. Some view the latter as a mockery of the working class as Labor Day is celebrated both by workers and by management alike. Most labor unions still uphold May Day as the real workers' holiday. It's interesting to note that May 1 is declared as "Law Day" by the U.S. government! And what's more, May Day is extremely popular with anarchists and neo-communists in the U.S., with plenty of information about May 1 to be found on web sites of anarchist organizations and groups!


The most peculiar fact about May Day is that it existed as a holiday centuries before any organized labor movements. In those days, it was only a celebration of the coming spring and the revival and fertility of nature. The Celts and Saxons called May 1 'Beltane,' or the day of fire (from Bel, the Celtic god of the sun). The symbol of the feast back then was the Maypole, a growing tree brought from the woods to the center of the village. Some Maypoles can still be found on the British Isles, but only very few have been preserved. The holiday, moreover, was surprisingly accompanied by a great deal of sexual license that was otherwise not tolerated by society.

In the seventeenth century, May Day was outlawed by the Puritans and condemned by the Catholic Church. However, the folk tradition continued to live on, especially in the hearts of peasants and artisans. During the Victorian Period, the festival was restored, yet without its previous exuberance and tribute to fertility. It became morally overlaid, a holiday of innocence that had already lost its true spirit.

Some people have found a strong connection between the old pagan May Day and the more recent holiday of the working class. According to them, the secular character of May 1 (it was never a church holiday) and its popularity among the lower social classes have naturally led to choosing May Day as the day of the working people. According to others, as local guilds evolved into trade societies and then into organized unions, the tradition of May 1 was carried on, evolving on its part into a holiday of the workers.


In historical retrospective, it seems that May Day has always been a holiday of the common people. Its fate continues to be the same as in times of yore: banned by authorities, then restored, and banned again... Once it was because May 1 was a pagan rite, now it's because it's often thought to be a communist holiday. It is certainly a pity that a holiday with such rich history and traditions is often denied a proper place in our modern society. Yet, everyone can at least choose what May Day means to him or her and then celebrate accordingly!

Sources: "The Pagan Origins of May Day"
"The Origins and Traditions of Mayday" by Eugene W. Plawick
"May Day, the Workers' Day" by Andy McInerney

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