For some, May Day brings thoughts of children dancing around a May pole with streaming ribbons or baskets of flowers left secretly on a neighbor’s doorstep, but how did May Day actually start?
May Day history
Some may think it began with the huge demonstrations of military might seen in films of the old Soviet Union. In reality, for thousands of years many societies celebrated the welcome change of season on this day. The first known occurrence began with Beltane, a Celtic celebration of rebirth and fertility. When the Romans overtook the British Isles, their celebration of Floralia combined with Beltrane.
Maypoles probably originated in medieval times as villagers would dance around the pole – again as part of a fertility ritual. But in America, this was discouraged by the Puritans and never became a common occurrence.
May Basket Day, however, was celebrated by children delivering baskets of flowers and candies to neighbors and loved ones throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. These baskets were hung on the doors anonymously.
How did the current May Day begin?
In the early 1800s, workplaces were dangerous and the work was often long and hard, with many injuries and death – some jobs having a life expectancy in the early twenties. This led to the organization of labor unions. By 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions determined “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886” at their national convention.
Many labor unions backed this, and some began jousting for other reforms. The political climate worried citizens that a revolution would follow. One proclamation, printed just prior to May 1, 1886, clearly demonstrated this thinking.
• Workingmen to Arms!
• War to the Palace, Peace to the Cottage, and Death to LUXURIOUS IDLENESS.
• The wage system is the only cause of the World’s misery. It is supported by the rich classes, and to destroy it, they must be either made to work or DIE.
• One pound of DYNAMITE is better than a bushel of BALLOTS!
• MAKE YOUR DEMAND FOR EIGHT HOURS with weapons in your hands to meet the capitalistic bloodhounds, police, and militia in proper manner.
Chicago was the center for all this activity and its citizens thought a violent clash would occur. The first May Day ‘celebration’ was held in that city on May 1, 1886. More than 300,000 workers representing 13,000 businesses walked off their jobs across the country. But, the violence didn’t happen until May 3rd, between the police and the Metal Workers’ Union and their supporters at Haymarket Square.
The crowd was much smaller than a day earlier due to bad weather, but 3,000 people, including families, were present along with the mayor of Chicago. The mayor later said the crowd was orderly, but rumors of unrest began filtering through the crowd and the police presence. There were rocks thrown and brawling, which led up to a bomb thrown into the police ranks. The police began firing into the crowd and eight officers died. The bomb thrower was never identified or caught.
The results of that day in Haymarket Square
May Day was established as an international Workers’ Day and is an official holiday in 66 countries, but is not officially recognized in the US where it all began.
Through those years of strife well over a hundred years ago, we benefit from their struggles and sacrifices with eight hour work days, Saturday as well as Sunday as a weekend, the end of child labor, and many more improvements including overtime and wage laws.
The Haymarket monument has these words from those who lived that era:
“The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”
Today, most of this history been lost except in the memories of a few. Instead, May Day is a time of enjoying the weather, attending outdoor festivals, and planting gardens, but while enjoying these activities, take a moment to remember that without these “rabble rousers” of the past our lives might be much different.