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May Day: Spring Rites or Workers’ Rights?


May Day is observed as a national holiday in many countries, but what is its significance and relevance? It depends on who you ask! It’s either a celebration of spring with neo-pagan roots – or a commemoration of workers’ rights, a day of protests, rallies, and strikes. Whichever “version” of the holiday appeals to you, the two faces of May Day each has a fascinating origin.

A Day of Rebirth and Renewal

The “conventional” May Day is an ancient spring festival that traces its beginnings to various European pagan traditions: The most well-known was the Celtic Beltane festival that celebrated the day that was thought to divide the year in half. It coincided with spring and was therefore observed with festivities that highlighted fertility and renewal – including large bonfires and Maypole dancing around a tall flower- and ribbon-bedecked pole.

Another tradition was the Roman festival celebrating Flora – the goddess of spring, flowers, and fertility. Making floral garlands, decorating houses with flowers and leaves, and designating a “May queen” to commemorate the goddess Flora were some of the festivities related to this tradition.

The “Real Labor Day”?

For those in the labor movement, May Day has a totally different meaning and connotation. They consider it the real Labor Day (and not the Labor Day celebrated in the US in September). Designated as International Workers Day, this May Day commemorates the mass labor protests and unrest in Chicago in 1886 (known as the Haymarket Riots), which led to the establishment of the eight-hour work day in the US. This was a historic achievement for workers who until then, were subjected to between 12- and even 16- hour working days.

These days, May 1 or the first Monday in May is celebrated in many countries with large marches paying tribute to the rights of workers and protesting their ongoing struggles including, most recently, globalization. In the UK, it is observed as the Early May Bank Holiday, in which many businesses and schools are closed and public transport runs on a holiday schedule.

Curiously, May Day is not an important holiday in the United States. The spring festival, with its pagan underpinnings, was discouraged by the Puritans who arrived in the New World. On the other hand, the International Workers Day, with its ties to communist and socialist societies, has been designated in the US as Loyalty Day, a day for citizens to demonstrate love of country.

How are you celebrating this May Day?