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What Is May Day?

What does dancing have to do with the first day of May? Learn the origins of this secular celebration.

May 1st  is not only the first day of the new month, but it’s also a holiday of sorts. May Day is celebrated as a way to welcome summer and as a day to campaign for better labor rights.

Origins in Pagan Times

May Day started as a pre-Christian holiday celebrated throughout Europe, especially among the Gaelic people, who called it Beltaine. It was a holiday that marked the halfway point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. Beltaine was also about fertility — people hoped that by observing the holiday, they could ensure that their livestock and crops were fruitful over the coming summer. Bonfires were the centerpiece of Beltaine celebrations, with people dancing around them and feasting long into the night.

Toss The Lentils?

In Rome, the holiday was slightly different. May Day was called Floralia, after Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. Floralia was similar to Beltaine in that it was a celebration of fertility. Popular Floralia traditions included releasing hares and goats — two animals thought to be most fertile — into the streets. People would also throw beans or lentils into the gathered crowds because both were considered to be symbols of fertility.

May Day Celebrations from the Middle Ages to Today

By the Middle Ages, May Day was a secular event, and the most popular way to celebrate it was to dance around the maypole, which is a tradition that is still practiced in parts of Europe and the United States today.

The maypole dance features a large pole, traditionally cut from a birch tree, with dozens of ribbons fastened to the top. Each dancer takes a ribbon and moves around the pole in a pattern with the rest of the dancers. The goal is to cover the pole in pretty woven designs. This was a particularly popular event in Great Britain, to the point that nearly every village cut their own maypole for May Day. Some villages would even compete with each other to see who had the tallest maypole.

Other traditions include crowns of flowers and the crowing of the May Queen. Rarely, observers of this holiday will also crown a king, too.

It is important to note that May Day celebrations, both past and present, are a tradition of people in the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, May marks the onset of winter.

See a Maypole dance celebration from Illinois

A Workers’ Holiday?

May Day took on a double meaning in the 1880s. At the time, people all over the world were fighting for fair workplaces, demanding unions and eight-hour workdays among other things. May Day became known as International Workers’ Day in because it happened to fall on the anniversary of the Haymarket Affair in Chicago.

On May 1, 1886, protesters organized an event that was supposed to last several days. By May 3, protests were turning violent, culminating in a riot at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. This led to an even larger protest the next day as enraged protester flocked to Haymarket Square. During the Haymarket demonstration, a bomb went off among police ranks, wounding 67 officers, seven of whom were killed. Police returned fire, wounding more than 200 protesters and killing several. This event would go on to be known as the Haymarket Tragedy.

In 1889, the International Socialist Conference, a group that was fighting for workers’ rights worldwide, declared that May 1 would forever be known as the International Workers’ Day to commemorate the tragic events of the Haymarket Affair and to help further the cause of workers’ rights around the world.

Don’t Confuse “May Day” With “Mayday”

May Day is not to be confused with “Mayday” which is an urgent call for help, and usually said three times in quick succession.

Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental and green living topics. Her article on woolly worm caterpillar folklore appears in the 2020 Farmers' Almanac.

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Vvianne Vilme

May Day is a International Workers” Day

Susan Higgins

Hi Vivianne Vlime, the article does go into great detail about that.

Vvianne Vilme

Answer some questions about the 1st Intetnational Day

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