I will always remember walking out of school on a sunny day in Spring and seeing two women on a shady part of the grass, laughing and lolling the afternoon away. They had free time and free spirits, and I wanted to join them. That’s the essence of MayDay!
The historical origins of MayDay lie in the spring festivals of pre-Christian Europe. One of these springs festivals was Beltaine, a Celtic festival of sensuality and fecundity. “Taine” is a form of the Gaelic word for fire, so among the disputed but possible meanings of the festival’s name are “brilliant fire” or “lucky fire.” On the eve of Beltaine holy men ceremoniously cultivated bonfires on the highest hills. The folk would sacrifice food in the fire; then they would jump back and forth over the fire to secure protection and blessing for themselves in the coming year. After a night of revelry and sexual license, families would return to their homes with coals from the sacred bonfire to reignite their own hearth. Washing with the dew of Beltaine’s dawn endowed women with beauty and men with skillful hands, the story goes. (1)
Ancient Anglo-Saxon celebrations of the month of May seem to be responsible for the English and early American custom of erecting a Maypole to dance around on the 1st of May. (2) Although I can only speculate, I imagine the Anglo-Saxon Maypole custom is closely related to the Scandinavian Midsummer-pole (with the difference in latitude, the climate of a Scandinavian summer is presumably most like the climate of late spring in the British Isles).
May 1st became associated with the rights of workers shortly after Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket riot and the subsequent travesty “show trial” that condemned four men to death on the basis of rumor and association. (2) The organizers had declared May 1st a holiday from work in efforts to rally the public around the cause of confining the workday to eight hours. In 1889 the International Workers’ Congress called for a universal strike on May 1st, 1890 to demand an eight-hour workday. (3) Since then, many nations around the world continue to celebrate this day, although the USA officially celebrates these triumphs on Labor Day in September (in part to avoid the Marxist associations of those early labor struggles). The US government declared May 1st “Loyalty Day” at the height of the red-baiting anti-communist McCarthy era in 1958. This designation was reaffirmed as recently as 2007 by president George Bush. (4) The idea of this day being co-opted as another knee-jerk patriotic holiday saddens me – as if we did not have enough political holidays!
While many in our country will forever see the agitations of the labor movement through the lens of the Cold War, dismissing them as expressions of an ideology used to support Soviet and Chinese totalitarianism, this taint cannot invalidate the call of the poor for justice and some measure of equality. Even in the midst of America’s current ideological divisions over so-called “socialist” policies, the need for basic workplace regulations is generally taken for granted. While countless workers benefit from the eight-hour workday/40 hour work-week, few realize people were fired, maimed, and killed in the struggle to secure this privilege which has become the standard.
MayDay is a time to celebrate the beauty and vitality of Spring, just as folks have always done around this time of year. It is also a day to celebrate the ideal of equality and a reasonable quality of life for all. Some leisure, enough for both rest and recreation, should be available to all people regardless of class or status. At its core (in both pagan and modern labor manifestations) MayDay symbolizes the human thirst for freedom — not just the political freedoms of expression and religion, but also the freedom from “want” and the freedom from “fear” that permit the dignity of each person to flourish. (5)
Suggestions for celebrating:
* Begin celebrating at dusk on April 30th, MayDay eve
* Toast loved ones with a glass of fruit wine
* Feast on the fruits of this season (strawberry shortcake?)
* Decorate a May Bush (with ribbons and colored eggshells – left over from Easter if possible); dance around the Maybush singing Spring songs (see below for suggestions)
* Decorate your home with flowers and hawthorne
* Give basket of flowers and food to your neighbors or those in need – in secret
* Loll and laugh in the grass with lovers and loved ones
Take it to the next level:
* Build a bonfire – throw some food in it and make a wish; when the fire dies down, jump back and forth over it three times
* Stay up all night and wash in the pre-dawn dew
* Make love outdoors
* At dawn, cast a garland of flowers into a fresh water (stream, lake, river)
* Join a MayDay rally, or organize your own rally to support the cause of worker safety and well-being
“As long as the struggle of the workers against the bourgeoisie and the ruling class continues, as long as all demands are not met, May Day will be the yearly expression of these demands. And, when better days dawn, when the working class of the world has won its deliverance then too humanity will probably celebrate May Day in honor of the bitter struggles and the many sufferings of the past.” (3)
(1) Kindling the Celtic Spirit, Mara Freeman
(2) Wikipedia entry on “May Day”
(3) Rosa Luxemburg, “What Are the Origins of May Day,” 1894.
(4) Wikipedia entry on “Loyalty Day”
(5) Cf. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s speech, “The Four Freedoms,” 1941.