It's curious how holidays tend to change and sometimes gradually merge over time. This is perhaps especially true of the spring observances of Arbor Day, Earth Day, and May Day. Arbor Day: April 20
Celebration of a special day to plant trees is recognized in most states as Arbor Day. The first formal observance was in Nebraska, promoted by J. Sterling Morton, in April 1872. April 22, Morton's birthday, was later chosen as the date there. The idea quickly spread to other states, and now is observed in some way in all states. The date varies, though it is most commonly in April.
Most of our holidays look to the past, noting events and persons in our history. Arbor Day was the first holiday that looked instead to the future. By planting a tree, one hopes to leave its shade as a legacy for future generations.
Earth Day: April 22
The environmental movement of the late 1960s and 1970s began the observance of Earth Day. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin was a principal organizer of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. This largely grassroots-organized event brought the participation of about 20 million Americans with various fairs, educational forums, and clean up activities, largely at colleges and high schools. The date was chosen as being late during the spring at a time when universities were not on break, and it did not interfere with Easter or Passover. By 2007, nearly a billion people around the world were thought to participate in various Earth Day activities at colleges, universities, schools, libraries, museums, and parks.
These observances have spread environmental awareness throughout much of society. The early Earth Day celebrations were instrumental in gathering support for landmark environmental legislation that followed in the 1970s. It remains popular and important today as a means of promoting environmental issues with clean-ups, educational forums, and other events.
Earth Day is popular with its many educational seminars on recycling, reducing waste, the promotion of bicycle riding and mass transit, and other related issues. This day is generally much more widely recognized than Arbor Day, except perhaps in Nebraska where Arbor Day began.
May Day: May 1
There is a green side and a red side May Day. The green side is an ancient one of celebrating the coming summer, warmer weather, flowers, dancing around the Maypole, and celebrating fertility. The red side relates to its close association with labor history of late 19th century America which evolved into an international day of the worker.
May Day's green side with the Maypole and flower festivals is not a popular holiday in the U.S. at the present time. Many of the ancient customs, such as bonfires, dancing around a garland decorated Maypole, and May baskets did not transplant well into North America, being perceived by some as pagan in origin. Some of these traditions have been revived with the New Age Movement of the 1970s, making it slightly more popular today than perhaps fifty years ago. However, its observance is still far from common in most of the U.S.
There is also the red side of May Day associated with the often-neglected history of the American labor movement. In 1886 Chicago, workers marched in support of an 8-hour workday. While this was largely non-violent, demonstrations at a strike a few days later led to bloodshed. A mass meeting at Haymarket Square a few days later led to more bloodshed, with several unionists and policemen killed. This became known as the Haymarket Riots. There was an unfair trial and subsequent execution of several anarchists. Within a few years, May 1 was celebrated in many countries as an International Worker's Day. This tradition continues today.
It was never very popular here due to the strong anti-socialist, anti-labor stance of the governmental and business Establishment. The active antagonism towards May Day being celebrated as Labor Day in the U.S. was confirmed with the 1894 declaration of the first Monday in September as Labor Day. This was done as an official response to the 1894 May Day "March on Washington" by several hundred disgruntled unemployed. In the 1920s, this bias was further reinforced with the development of "Americanization Day." This evolved into Loyalty Day over the next two decades. May 1 was also proclaimed as Law Day in the 1960s, further confusing the public. While a formal proclamation day, Law Day has never been really popular with the American public.
The Spring Festival
Because of their close proximity in date, many activities related to the environment and spring clean ups are merged together. These activities are often on a weekend, from mid-April to the first weekend in May. This avoids a direct conflict Mother's Day, the second Sunday in May, which retains its nature as a very popular day all its own.
When combined, Arbor Day, Earth Day, and May Day have a stronger collective impact on recognizing spring than any of them achieved separately. The increasing popularity of clean-ups reveals a much greater awareness and concern with environmental issues than was evident just a few decades ago. Celebration of spring, with public cleaning of parks and highways and flower festivals is a fusion of these three days. While particular events may honor one of these three days, in the collective consciousness it is a time of environmental spring festival.
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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.
Schauffler, Robert Haven, ed., Arbor Day, New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1909, (1990 reprint).