It was a pagan holiday, a Christian holiday, a public holiday, a day for dancing and feasting, and International Worker’s of the World Day. Welcome to May Day: May First.
In Roman times, May 1 marked the start of summer.
The day was associated with ‘Floralia’, a week-long festival in honour of Flora: The Goddess of Flowers, which was held in the last week of April.
Unlike some Roman festivals, which were often austere, Floralia was a celebratory occasion; people would host dinner parties, drink wine, and generally be merry.
Beyond Rome, other cultures also marked the beginning of summer on the same day.
The Gaelic holiday ‘Beltane’ was held on May 1, and was honoured in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Flowers also played a part in this celebration; bunches of primrose, hawthorn and marigolds were placed over doorways and in windows. Bonfires were lit, to ward off evil spirits, and to give thanks for the return of warm weather.
In medieval Germany, May 1 was a holiday in honour of Saint Walburga.
Walburga was born in England around 710 CE, and trained as a nun in Dorset. Her aristocratic family was highly religious; both of her brothers died doing missionary work, and would also be canonised.
Around 750 CE, Walburga herself went to Germany to serve as a missionary, determined to bring Christianity to the pagan tribes there. She helped establish monasteries in both Heidenheim and Hahnenkamm, and would eventually serve as abbess in both. Her gentle, pious nature endeared her to the local population, and she was able to win many converts.
Walburga died in 779 CE, and her bones were placed in a rocky alcove near Eichstatt. Pilgrims attending her shrine reported an oily liquid coming from the place of interment, which had remarkable healing powers.
This miracle was recognised by the church, and Walburga was canonised by Pope Adrien II on May 1, 870.
The eve of this date became known as Walburga’s Night, and was marked in Germany with a feast, and dancing. In more recent times, the minor Harry Potter character, Walburga Black, Sirius Black’s mother, is named after her.
The English also marked the beginning of summer on May 1.
The local tradition, which in some places continues to this day, was for a ‘Maypole’ to be erected in a central part of the town or village. Young children would then dance around the pole, while folk songs were played, gradually wrapping it up in brightly coloured ribbons.
The symbolic meaning of the Maypole has been much debated.
Some scholars see it a metaphor for the new growth that accompanies warmer weather; a kind of artificial plant, reaching for the sky. Another interpretation is that it is a phallic symbol, linking sexual reproduction to the summer blossoming apparent in nature. Yet another theory is that the Maypole is a simplified version of the standing stones, that were a central part of pagan ritual in ancient England.
In most places where May 1 was celebrated, the tradition continued even after the spread of Christianity replaced the pagan gods. The celebration of the start of summer was too entrenched in local custom, and so continued for hundreds of years, in a secular form.
In many places it was a public holiday as well. A rare free day, in a time of long work hours, and hard labour.
So, perhaps it is no surprise that in the late 19th century, May 1 took on an altogether different significance.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the workplace was very different to today.
There were no unions, few regulations on pay or entitlements, and little recourse for workers who were mis-treated. Pay was low, hours long, and conditions often unsafe.
From mid-century, workers began to try and address these problems by organising into Labor Groups; what would come to be known as unions. Most of these groups were initially deemed illegal, and their members were persecuted by the authorities. Strikes were broken up by the police, even the military, and union organisers were forced to physically defend themselves as they tried to promote their cause.
In America, one of the earliest unions was ‘The Federation of Organised Trades and Labor’; a large group representing the skilled trades, based in Chicago.
At their annual conference in 1884, the Federation issued a concrete demand:
‘That eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor from and after May 1, 1886.’
- Federation Statement, 1884
They then set about lobbying to try and force local politicians to act on their demand. When this proved unsuccessful, they turned to the Chicago workforce, and began to drum up support for a mass strike, to take place on their deadline date, if their demand had not been met.
The response was enthusiastic, and the cause quickly spread.
Workers across America pledged to walk out on strike, if the eight-hour day was not legislated.
When May 1, 1886 rolled around, 40 000 Chicago workers, and 300 000 nation wide, went on strike. While the demonstration, and the response, was initially peaceful, as the strike dragged on, tensions rose.
On May 4, violence between police and demonstrators finally erupted. Authorities would later claim that anarchist infiltrators had started the trouble; one of these was alleged to have lobbed a bomb at police lines, a claim disputed by labor leaders.
Whatever the cause, police then opened fire on the strikers, who then fought back with makeshift weapons and more home-made explosives. 8 police were killed in the melee, along with an unknown number of workers.
Horrified labour leaders across the world were outraged by the massacre.
In solidarity with their Chicago comrades, the first anniversary of the incident, May 1, was marked with tributes and peaceful demonstrations. By 1891, the world’s most prominent Socialist Group, the ‘Second International’, voted at their annual conference in Paris to recognise May 1 as ‘International Worker’s Day’, AKA May Day.
This became a global day of action, with strikes, speeches, and other events to promote the cause of organised labour, and workers’ rights.
May Day became such a significant event, that it became a formal public holiday in many parts of the world, most notably in America. May 1 had once again became a public holiday, much as it had been 2 500 years earlier.
You can read more about the early years of organised labour, the 8 hour workday, and May 1, here.