May Day

May Day arrives at the beginning of the delightful month of May, a time when the harshness of winter (or summer in the Southern Hemisphere) has finally receded. Throughout time, this day long has been one of celebration, a time when the trees and flowers are in bloom and the days are getting longer. While the holiday tends to pass without notice in the United States, many cultures throughout the world mark the arrival of May Day with major festivals. In the United Kingdom, May Day is one of the bank holidays, a time for holiday set aside for welcoming in summer. Around the world, May Day is also International Workers Day, a time to honor workers and their hard work.


History  Spring, Lawrence Alma Tadema

Like many holidays, May Day has its roots deep in the past. Before Christian times, Romans celebrated the arrival of May, flowers and their goddess Flora. From there, the Celts, Druids and others lent their beliefs and traditions to the springtime celebration. In countries with Germanic roots, the holiday was celebrated is Walpurgin Night—held exactly six months before All Hallow’s Eve, aka Halloween. In lands today a part of central and northern Europe, the holiday was celebrated with bonfires and dancing. By the 800s, the holiday of May Day came to be associated with Saint Walpurga, an English missionary throughout Europe. Dancing around the maypole has become synonymous with the holiday of May Day, along with crowning a queen and leaving sweet treats for one’s neighbors. In Roman Catholic tradition, May is a month honoring the Virgin Mary and May 1 is a feast day honor St. Joseph, the workers’ patron saints.

International Workers Day

Perhaps it was coincidence, but a pivotal even in the labor movement happened in the beginning of May. On May 4 1886, the Haymarket Affair began as a peaceful protest supporting workers on strike demanding an eight-hour workday, something most workers today take for granted. The protests turned violent and a bombing killed many police officers and demonstrations. The event helped spur the fight for workers’ rights, and its memory continues with the annual International Workers Day. In many countries, this is an official holiday, including Argentina, the Philippines, and France. In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated later in the summer, although many legislators have tried to declare May 1 as the official holiday.

May Day Events

May Day Events
May Day Events  Image: Steenbergs (flickr)

Communities throughout the world celebrate May Day in their own way. In the United Kingdom, the bank holiday occurs the first Monday in May. Communities with British roots often celebrate May Day as a type of community festival. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon traditions are incorporated into the celebration with dancing, maypoles and music. Oxford begins its May Day celebrations early. At 6 a.m. people flock to Magdalen College’s great tower, gathering for songs from the college’s madrigal choir. In Hawaii, May 1 is marked as a day to celebrate the island’s history and heritage. Called Lei Day, the holiday has been celebrated since the 1920s with plenty of hula dancing, lei ceremonies, and other festivals. In other places, countries, May Day is a time to protest working conditions. In some places, unions hold special events to honor their workers.

Top image: Whitsable Oyster Festival (flickr)

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