I did notice that today was the first day of the month of May. For me, it’s really just a reminder that the birthday of a niece is close at hand. Oh, and my stomach gets excited because it knows we will be enjoying some good Mexican food and too much beer on Cinco de Mayo. But earlier tonight, a friend on Facebook from Germany asked me how I celebrated “May Day.” I wasn’t sure how to answer so I gave my description of a typical Sunday in my life. When I asked him how his day had been, I got a VERY DIFFERENT answer.
In Europe, “May Day” is related to any number of ancient pagan festivals celebrated around early May. Many of these celebrations marked the end of winter weather and the start of the farming cycle and provided popular incentives for drinking, dancing, and “displays of fertility.” YIKES!! A few examples include the festival of Flora (celebrating the Roman goddess of flowers), the Celtic festival of Beltane (with loud feasts and the lighting of bonfires to banish the long nights of winter), and the Germanic festival of Walpurgisnacht (with the wrapping of maypoles and lots of dancing).
But what my German friend was talking about was a more politically-motivated “May Day” … one I guess I knew a bit about but not much. It seems in many countries … and in the U.S., to a point … “May Day” is synonymous with International Workers’ Day. So in countries across the globe, May 1 is marked with political demonstrations organized by various groups to focus attention on employee rights and other workforce issues, as well as an international celebration of the social and economic achievements of the labor movement.
One source explained that the roots for International Workers' Day can be found in a public Australian holiday known as “Eight-Hour Day.” Apparently in 1856, a group of stonemason’s negotiated an improvement in working conditions and a “workers’ holiday” was established. The notion of this April 22 holiday began to spread to neighboring countries and eventually the holiday was moved to May 1 to commemorate the Haymarket Square demonstrations of 1886. Known as one of the world’s most grievous labor-related tragedies, this event began when a three-day labor strike of employees of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., of Chicago, got out of hand and four employee were killed by police attempted to break the strike. The next day, a rally was held in Haymarket Square to protest the workers’ deaths. Again, police arrived to disperse the crowds and during the process opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. A dozen more people were killed , including one law enforcement officer. Eventually, eight people were put on trial … all individuals known for having strong worker party political beliefs but almost no connection to the actual demonstration. Four of these men were publically executed and the affair is still cited by political activists as a total travesty of the American justice system and an example of people put on trial purely for their political convictions.
So while the United States may have provided some inspiration for International Workers' Day, it is a true international day with rallies and demonstrations allowing citizens of the world to protest unfair labor laws and practices. In 1958, the U.S. Congress designated May 1 as “Loyalty Day.” It is also sometimes referred to as “Law Day.”
Several countries such as Bangladesh, Italy, China, Syria, Hong Kong, Poland, Taiwan, Portugal, Argentina, Finland, Ireland, Bulgaria, Greece, and Brazil have a long and “tense” histories of celebrating May 1. Whether it is “May Day” or International Workers' Day or “Labor Day,” these nations support this public holiday as an opportunity for workers to unite and speak with one voice.
Which, again, leads me back to my friend ... for him, “May Day” was drinking and dancing in the streets and watching families picnicking together. It was also numerous political demonstrations, some nasty name calling, and even bricks and stones thrown through several storefront windows. He also told me about regions in Germany where the traditions of Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night) are very much alive … where people still wrap maypoles and where young men in love secretly deliver trees decorated with streamers to the women they love. Women, though, sneak to the homes of the males they pine for and place heart-shaped offerings crafted from rose petals or rice grains. And often times, if the culprit is apprehended while delivering the “May Day” tribute, a kiss is required from the “offending” party. Romantic stuff, indeed!!
In many European countries and parts of the U.S., “May Day” antics still exist as a diluted form of the “green root” (pagan) and “red root” (labor) traditions of the past. In the UK, for example, some communities still celebrate with traditional dancing around the maypole, madrigal choirs, and the crowning of the Queen of May. Because of the Roman Catholic observance of May as a celebration to the Blessed Virgin Mary, May flowers are often placed on the heads of statues and figurines of Mary.
In some parts of the United States, “May Day” parades are still held. In more rural areas, the tradition of anonymously giving May Baskets … small collections of flowers and treats … to neighbors is still going strong. I love the idea of brightening someone’s day by leaving a basket of goodies on their doorstep, ringing the bell, and then running away. My Mom used to do that for some of the people in our neighborhood at Christmas who were alone or facing particular hard times. Guess she had the “May Day” spirit in December!
In Sweden, the country celebrates “May Day” as Vappu with crazy carnival-style street festivals. In France, there us a centuries-old tradition of men giving a sprig of lily of the valley to women in return for a kiss. In Hawaii, May 1 is “Lei Day” … not what you think!! … and since the ‘20s islanders have used this day to celebrate native Hawaiian culture.
And in other spots, contemporary “May Day” revelers have created 10K runs, vegan feasts, motorcycle and bicycle tours, streaking events, and organized skinnydipping to commemorate the day.
POINT OF RANT: Where the hell were my kisses on May 1? … I am waiting!!