by Liz Lonergan
May Means so many things, and, coincidently, many of them start with the letter “M;” May Day on May 1, Mother’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Memorial Day on Monday, May 30. Not to mention that in the circles in which we travel (that would be the academic ones), May Means graduation, from the co-eds playing Frisbee in the quad to the nail-biting stress of finals week to the full blown graduation fever that hits, well, just about now. But, the way we look at it, you’re probably up to your eyeballs in graduation fever, so we thought we’d spare you a column on graduation. Instead we opted for a look at May Day, and, yes, we do realize it has passed for this year, but we thought the history of it was so interesting that we wanted to write about it anyway.
If the term “May Day” conjures up images of marching soldiers, the U.S.S.R. and planned rallies involving tens of thousands of people dressed in drab garb, then you (like me) must, ahem, be of a certain age, and therefore you associate May Day with communism, labor movements and Eastern European countries.
But May Day is much more than marches or the paid worker holiday that it is in much of the first world, it is a celebration dating back thousands of years that honors the coming of summer, the season of bounty, and, in those days, the season that ensured you didn’t starve to death in the other three seasons. People the world over celebrated both April 30 and May 1 with festivals and merrymaking honoring the return of the sun, the planting ritual and their own fertility. Early Celtic Pagans celebrated “Beltaine,” a two-day festival starting on April 30 with a night of eating, drinking, burning large fires, and, ahh, fertility rituals. Those who celebrated Beltaine would return to the towns the next morning bearing large bundles of spring flowers and branches they would use to decorate houses along the way. In return, the revelers were treated to the finest food and drink each home had to offer. A Maypole was erected in town, and the revelers ate, drank, danced and celebrated the whole day long. In many cultures, the cattle were moved to their summer pastures on May 1, and planting commenced after the festival.
After the rise of Christianity, the May Day festivities were severely curtailed, and most references to fertility were removed, though customs like the Maypole and bringing flowers in the house are still practiced by many cultures worldwide.
The labor movement connection to May Day began in the United States in 1884, when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions demanded a 40-hour workweek that they wanted to begin on May 1, 1886. The famous Haymarket Riots in Chicago and other, countrywide mayhem ensued, causing much consternation with our country’s leadership, especially those who feared socialism and anarchy. Despite our country’s connection to the birth of May Day as a worker’s day, then-President Grover Cleveland favored naming early September as Labor Day. Cleveland put his support behind a September holiday because it was suggested by the Knights of Labor, an early Philadelphia based labor union (that was demanding an 8-hour workday, the end of child labor and equal pay for equal work) that was not seen as having direct ties to socialist groups. The Knights of Labor had organized parades in early September previously, and President Cleveland believed that having our Labor Day in May would glorify and commemorate the Haymarket Riots, something he did not want to happen. That is how we came to celebrate our day honoring workers in September and not May, like the rest of the world. We have good, if not surprising, company, in that Canada celebrates Labo(u)r Day on the first Monday in September also and Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand celebrate it in May, just not on May 1, for, allegedly, the same reasons. So, now you know that May Day means a lot more than those Red Square displays that are buried in the archives of your mind.