Today, many in the world celebrate May Day a time when workers take time off and people celebrate with picnics, bonfires, dancing around a maypoles, crowning a May Day queen, wearing a crown of flowers and/or greenery on their heads, and May Day baskets.

The earliest recorded May Day celebrations took place in pre-Christian times with the Floralia, a festival honoring the Roman goddess of glowers, Flora. In many European pagan cultures, the day celebrates the coming of the first day of summer; a day for villages and towns to pay homage for fertility of the soil, livestock and people by attending village fairs and gatherings.

The Druids of the British Isles mark the day with the festival of Beltane, the Gaelic May Day festival that markers the half way point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. With bonfires and men dancing the night before.

By the Middle Ages, the use of the Germanic pagan tradition of maypoles become popular in Europe. The maypoles are traditionally made from the trunk of a birch or pine tree, originally having streamers of vines hanging down for the Maypole Dance; This involves weaving the vines around the poll in a criss-crossing design while "dancing" or walking around it. Greenery is still used today but it is often replaced by spring colored ribbons.

As Christianity took over Europe, the religious element of the pagan holiday was replaced with secular celebrations. Some Roman Catholics celebrate the Virgin Mary on May 1, with a "May crowning" of the Blessed Virgin.

During the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century, maypoles were disapproved and seen as immoral. Under the reign of Edward VI in England and Wales, Protestantism was declared as state religion and under the Reformation, and the maypoles destroyed. When Mary I ascended the throne after Edward's death, she reinstated Roman Catholicism as the state faith and the practice of maypole was reinstated.

In 1978, the Labor government in the U.K. introduced the May Day Bank Holiday to the national calendar. (International Business Times)

How An American Tragedy Made May Day into International Workers' Day

Even though Americans celebrate Labor Day in September, a tragedy in the late 19th century in Chicago, Illinois lead to May Day being selected as the date for International Workers' Day. A day to celebrate labors and working classes.

The date was chosen by the Second International; the original Socialist International, an organization of socialist and labor parties formed in Paris in 1889. It was to commemorate the Haymarket affair, the aftermath of a bombing that took place at a labor demonstration on May 4th 1886 at Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois.

Time magazine explained in 1929, "To old-fashioned people, May Day means flowers, grass, picnics, children, clean frocks. To up-and-doing Socialists and Communists it means speech making, parading, bombs, brickbats, conscientious violence. This connotation dates back to May Day, 1886, when some 200,000 U.S. workmen engineered a nationwide strike for an eight-hour workday."

The May 1, 1886, strike became known as the Haymarket Affair. On that date, Chicago was the site of a major union demonstration in support of the eight-hour workday. The Chicago protests were meant to be part of several days of action. On May 3, a strike at the McCormick Reaper plant turned violent; the next day, a peaceful meeting at Haymarket Square became more so.

Here's how Time magazine summed it up in 1938: A few minutes after ten o'clock on the night of May 4, 1886, a storm began to blow up in Chicago. As the first drops of rain fell, a crowd in Haymarket Square, in the packing house district, began to break up. At eight o'clock there had been 3,000 persons on hand, listening to anarchists denounce the brutality of the police and demand the eight-hour day, but by 10:00 p.m. there were only a few hundred. The mayor, who had waited around in expectation of trouble, went home, and went to bed. The last speaker was finishing his talk when a delegation of 180 policemen marched from the station a block away to break up what remained of the meeting. They stopped a short distance from the speaker's wagon. As a captain ordered the meeting to disperse, and the speaker cried out that it was a peaceable gathering, a bomb exploded in the police ranks. It wounded 67 policemen, of whom seven died. The police opened fire, killing several men and wounding 200, and the Haymarket Tragedy became a part of U. S. history. In 1889, the International Socialist Conference declared that, in commemoration of the Haymarket affair, May 1 would be an international holiday for labor, now known in many places as International Workers' Day. In the U.S., that holiday came under contempt during the anti-communist fervor of the early Cold War. In July of 1958, President Eisenhower signed a resolution named May 1 "Loyalty Day" in an attempt to avoid any hint of solidarity with the "workers of the world" on May Day. The resolution declared that it would be "a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States of America and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom." (Time archive)


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