May Day is a public holiday in many countries across the globe, but do you know why? Well it turns out that there are plenty of reasons to choose from.
It can be viewed as an astronomical holiday, as it is one of the four days that falls midway between an equinox and solstice in this case the vernal equinox (March) and the summer solstice (June). It was also celebrated in pre-Christian Europe by different names but with similar themes, usually a celebration of the coming of spring or summer.
Flora was a Roman goddess of flowers and blossoming plants, whose holiday ‘Floralia’ was celebrated from the 28th April to the 3rd May. It involved games, theatrical performances, flowers in people’s hair, the releasing of animals considered to be fertile and the throwing of beans, another fertility symbol inside the Circus Maximus.
In Celtic countries, it was celebrated as a seasonal holiday known as Beltane (different spelling depending on which country). There were rituals to promote fertility and a good harvest. Cattle were led between two bonfires lit by druids in order to purify and bless them. Sacrifices both human and animal were made in order to ensure good fertility. People would leap over the bonfires thinking it would protect and bless them.
Walpurgis Night is both the feast day of Saint Walpurga and the Witches night. Held on the 30th April or 1st May, it was celebrated in central and northern Europe but is thought to have originated in Germany. Ordinary people would have parties to welcome spring and the warmer weather. Other customs were the lighting of bonfires, courting men placing a branch wrapped in ribbons in the garden of a girl and towns putting up a maypole.
As Christianity spread, it began to integrate pagan festivals into its own Christian holy days to help convert the pagans. This led to May Day losing its religious connotations and becoming a more secular holiday.
International Workers Day/Labour Day
International Workers Day is also celebrated on the 1st May every year, although it is known as Labour Day in some countries. The creation of this holiday can be credited to America.
During the late 1800s, there was a rise of trade unions and labour movements in America. This was due to the deplorable conditions workers were made to work in as well as working 10 to 16 hours a day. These trade union organisations sought to establish an 8 hour work day. Many employers were not happy with this as much of the working class were in support of 8 hour work days.
On 1st May 1886, thousands of workers left their jobs in order to attend meetings and parades calling for an 8 hour work day in Chicago. On the 4th May, anarchist labour leaders held a mass meeting in Haymarket Square in response to police brutality against strikers. The meeting was peaceful until a contingent of police arrived and demanded the rest of the demonstrators to leave. It was at this point that a bomb was thrown into the ranks of the police by an unknown person. Police opened fire sporadically. In the end, there was an estimated 12 people killed and over90 injured.
The labour leaders who arranged the meeting were arrested as well as other prominent anarchists who did not even attend the meeting. In a controversial trial where the jury was said to be biased, 7 men were given the death sentence and 1 was given 15 years in prison. Of the 7 men who were sentenced to death, 4 were hanged, 1 committed suicide in his cell and the other 2 were given life sentences. In 1893, the 3 remaining men were pardoned. The men who died
The 1st May was chosen as the International Workers Day to commemorate those who were executed as a result of the Haymarket massacre.