May 1st—May Day is an ancient Northern Hemisphere spring festival and usually a public holiday. May Day just might represent more holidays, or events in history, than any other day of the year. As well as being a celebration of Spring, it’s a day of political protests, a neopagan festival, a saint’s feast day and a day for organized labor.
May Day is related to the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night. May Day falls exactly half a year from November 1, another cross-quarter day, which is also associated with various northern European pagan traditions.
As Europe became Christianized, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and either changed into popular secular celebrations, as with May Day, or were merged with or replaced by new Christian holidays as with Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and All Saint’s Day
In medieval England, people would celebrate the start of spring by going out to the country or woods—”going a-maying”—and gathering greenery and flowers, or “bringing in the may”. This was described in “The Court of Love” (often attributed to Chaucer, but not actually written by him) in 1561.
Growing up in England, May Day was a cause for celebration and I remember that in many towns across the country, maypole dancing was a very popular and colorful tradition. Some towns had permanent maypoles that would stay up all year; others put up a new one each May. In any event, the pole would be hung with greenery and ribbons, brightly painted, and otherwise decorated, and served as a central point for the festivities. For the popular ribbon dance—which I learned when I was five years old—dancers gather in a circle, each holding a colored ribbon attached to the maypole. As the dance commences the ribbons are intertwined and plaited either on to the pole itself or into a web around the pole. The dancers may then retrace their steps exactly in order to unravel the ribbons. Different steps and intertwining ribbons led to some very intricate patterns. Now, these colorful and joyous traditions have been replaced by the promotion of May Day as Labor Day. This began in the United States on May 1st, 1886 when unions across the country went on strike. The organizers of these strikes included socialists, anarchists, and others in organized labor movements, demanding that the standard workday be shortened to eight hours. The protests were not immediately successful, but they proved effective down the line, as eight-hour work days eventually did become the norm. Labor leaders, socialists, and anarchists around the world took the American strikes and their fallout as a rallying point, choosing May Day as a day for demonstrations, parades, and speeches. It was a major state holiday in the Soviet Union and other communist countries.
Labor Day is still celebrated on May 1 in countries around the world, and it is still often a day for protests and rallies. In recent years, these have often been targeted against globalization.