History of May Day Featured

History of May Day Photo from wikipedia.org

Originally published on www.celebrations360.com

May Day is not widely observed in the United States due to a societal collective amnesia of its historical origins.  It is a green holiday of Spring flowers and maypole dances celebrating the coming summer.  It is also a red holiday of the international labor movement, red hues intensified by militaristic parades in communist countries during much of the 20th century.

The Church discouraged many traditions of Spring as pagan.  The stifling of pagan customs has a long history in Europe since the earliest days of Christianity.  This continued into the Middle Ages as the Church’s influence expanded into new areas of northwestern Europe.  

In the United States, the Establishment decried May Day’s strong association with the labor movement and its early ties with anarchists, and later, with international communism. This fear of radical socialism led the Establishment to respond by obscuring and denying much of labor history. With the creation of Americanization Day, Loyalty Day, and Law Day on the first of May, the government’s hope was to compete with and ultimately absorb the holiday originally meant to celebrate the hopes and dreams of the common laborer.  This has been largely successful.

Ignoring these historical origins led to an ambiguity that is difficult to reconcile.  Both inside and outside of the government, May Day has been variously tacitly neglected or actively rejected.  On closer examination, it comes as no surprise that Americans are largely ignorant of either side of this holiday with a split personality.

The Green Side:  Seasonal Changes in the Natural World

May is a month of flowers in middle latitude countries of the Northern Hemisphere.  Many indigenous peoples of North America called May the Flower Moon.  This marked the beginning of warmer weather with flowers and greenery evolved from the first buds of the Worm Moon and the equinox a few short weeks earlier.

In Europe, traditions are much better documented, though the mists of antiquity obscure exact origins.  The Romans had many flower festivals in the spring.  These celebrations fused with pagan customs as the Church’s influence moved north and west during the Middle Ages.  The Celts, in particular, celebrated May Day as the beginning of Summer.  It was recognized as a cross-quarter day on their calendar, midway between the vernal equinox of March and the long days of June’s summer solstice.

Many different customs related to greenery, fertility, and Spring became part of May Day festivals.  Flowers and dancing around the Maypole are the iconic images of this Spring holiday.  These customs were especially popular in Scandinavia and northern Celtic countries.

May Day, as a Spring festival, was never widespread in the U.S.  With the New Age and Environmental Movements of the 1970s this began to change, though slowly.  In northern Europe, May Day has had a much longer continuous observance.  In keeping with the Celtic Calendar, six weeks after May Day comes the solstice, still commonly called “Midsummer.”

The Red Side:  Labor Day and International Solidarity

Few Americans realize that the red side of this holiday had its origins in the American Labor Movement of the late 19th century.

The Haymarket Riot

On May 1, 1886, some 40,000 workers and anarchists marched in Chicago, supporting the 8-hour workday. Two days later, at a striker’s rally at McCormick Reaper Works, Pinkerton guards broke up a small demonstration.  Police clubs and rocks led to gunfire with at least two union supporters killed.

A public meeting was held the next day at Haymarket Square to protest the police brutality.  As the crowd dwindled from about 2000 strong, the police came with a force nearly as large as the 200 people still present.  An anonymous bomb was thrown, killing a policeman, and injuring several others.  This led to gunfire and several police and labor supporters were killed. This became known as the Haymarket Riot.

Eight anarchists, mostly German and British immigrants, were quickly arrested and ultimately convicted of murder.  There is little doubt that they were innocent of the crime and convicted unjustly.

After several failed appeals, four men were executed on November 11, 1887, while a 5th committed suicide, or was murdered in prison.  Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the last three several years later.

Shortly after the Haymarket Riot, labor movements in Europe and other places recognized this as the beginning of an international labor movement.  Samuel Gompers, the long time head of the American Federation of Labor, urged the European labor movement, through an emissary, to proclaim May 1 as a day to celebrate international labor. This was gradually accomplished in many countries, but not in the U.S.  In Mexico, where May Day was recognized in 1913, it is still called “The Day of the Chicago Martyrs.”

Grover Cleveland’s second term from 1893 to 1897 was a time of depression and high unemployment.  In the spring of 1894, Jacob Coxey led a march on Washington.  This had begun with 25,000 disgruntled workers in Ohio; they were about 400 strong by the time they reached Washington on May Day. Coxey was arrested for trespassing in this first large-scale march of protest on the nation’s Capital. 

On June 28, that same year Congress passed a resolution proclaiming the first Monday in September as Labor Day.  This day was chosen because the first known Labor Day celebration in the U.S. was held on September 5, 1882.  A large parade organized by the Knights of Labor in New York drew about 10.000 people.  Originally, September had been chosen for Labor Day as it fell roughly midway between July 4 and Thanksgiving, a period devoid of holidays.

Loyalty Day and Law Day

Impressions that May Day was a holiday celebrating socialism and communism increased in the United States after the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917.   In response, the first “Americanization Day” was held May 1, 1921 at the urging of Patriotic groups.  Sources conflict on the details, and some say Americanization Day was first observed in 1932.  In the 1920s and 1930s there were many large patriotic parades on May Day.  Gradually, this evolved and merged into Loyalty Day, which Congress declared in 1947. President Eisenhower formally proclaimed May 1 as Loyalty Day in 1958.

May Day became even more confusing with the development of Law Day.  Sources again conflict on the details. Congress passed a resolution proclaiming May 1 as Law Day in 1958. Other sources say it began in 1961 with a proclamation by President Kennedy.

This proclamation day focuses on various aspects of our legal justice system.  With the support of the American Bar Association and other agencies within the legal system, there are public speakers at dinners or luncheons, and other educational seminars.

Anyone who lived through the 1950s and 1960s recalls the TV news clips of Red Square in Moscow, and in other communist capitals, presenting the latest military hardware with the pomp and circumstance of goose-stepping soldiers on parade.   During this period, at the height of the Cold War, in response to Loyalty Day / May observances, Senator Jacob Javitts of New York said, that American ideas were the highest “ever espoused since the dawn of civilization.” Governor Rockefeller of New York made the telling comment that to celebrate the traditional May Day “bordered on treason.”

An attempt was made to revive May Day as a holiday of the working class in America with massive demonstrations by immigrant workers on May 1, 2006.  This was in response to proposed strict anti-immigration laws passed by the House of Representatives, but not by the Senate.

It is unlikely that this attempted revival will have any significant effect on elevating May Day to the status it has in many countries around the world as a day celebrating the common laborer.  The U.S. will likely continue with Labor Day in September as a three-day weekend at the end of summer.  Large Labor Day parades are uncommon. The holiday is usually a time for that last barbecue, picnic, or trip to beach before the kids go back to school.

As for the green side of the holiday, spring celebrations will likely continue with flower festivals and spring clean ups.  Various schools, environmental, and public service organizations promote awareness of the environment with tree plantings, spring clean ups, and educational events combined with flower, bird, or garden festivals.  These occur most weekends from mid-April to mid-May. 

The green May Day has effectively been merged into a collective spring and environmental observance, a fusion of the Celtic beginning of summer with late April’s Arbor Day and Earth Day.  While these events celebrate various aspects of spring, there is no fixed day or date that has really caught on to the extent that we celebrate Hallowe’en or St. Patrick’s Day.

Sources:  Books

Krythe, Maymie R.  All About American Holidays.  New York:  Harper & Row, Publishers,1962.

Moore, Kathryn.  The American President: A Complete History.  Fall River Press, New York, 2007

Matthews, Jon.  The Summer Solstice:  Celebrating the Journey of the Sun from May Day to Harvest. Wheaton, Illinois:  Quest Books, Theosophical Publishing House,  2002

Myers, Robert J. (with the Editors of Hallmark Cards).  Celebrations: The Complete Book   of American Holidays. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1972.

Internet Sources

The History of May Day  http://www.marxists.org/subject/mayday/articles/tracht.html

Loyalty Day http://www.theholidayspot.com/mayday/loyalty_day.htm

Law Day http://www.theholidayspot.com/mayday/law_day.htm

May Day :  The Real Labor Day http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchism/mayday.html

The Brief Origins of MayDay-Industrial Workers of the World http://www.iww.org/projects/mayday/origins.shtmlhe

Labor Day – May Day http://faculty.cns.uni.edu/~campbell/gened/labour.html

May Day: The Forgotten Labor Day http://www.ueunion.org/uenewsupdates.html?news=311

The Incomplete True and Authentic History of May Day www.midnightnotes.org/mayday/

http://www.midnightnotes.org/mayday/red.html    http://www.midnightnotes.org/mayday/green.html

Cornell Law School http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/36/usc_sec_36_00000115-000-.html

Holidays: Loyalty Day in the United States http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/loyalty-day

Holidays  Law Day in the United States http://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/us/law-day

Read 1298 times Last modified on Wednesday, 29 January 2014 16:48
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Roger Chambers

Roger Chambers is a regsitered nurse, working in geriatric nursing for over 30 years. Since 1997 he has tended a large organic garden at his urban home. He has traveled widely in the US and Canada, Europe and Latin America.

He has had several articles in hobby publications on shortwave radio, and several poems in local arts journals and newspapers. An avid fan of birds and the Adirondack Mountains, at present he is largely focused on natural seasonal changes, holidays, and associated local fairs and festivals.

Roger resides in the beautiful Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York.

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