May Day ~ History

Well, it is a fact that May Day, which the children do enjoy with all vibes, is not an overly prominent holiday in America. Yet, it does have a long and notable history as one of the world’s principal festivals. The origin of the May Day as a day for celebration dates back to the days, even before the birth of Christ. And like many ancient festivals it too has a Pagan connection.

For the Druids of the British Isles, May 1 was the second most important holiday of the year. Because, it was when the festival of Beltane held. It was thought that the day divides the year into half. The other half was to be ended with the Samhain on November 1. Those days the May Day custom was the setting of new fire. It was one of those ancient New Year rites performed throughout the world. And the fire itself was thought to lend life to the burgeoning springtime sun. Cattle were driven through the fire to purify them. Men, with their sweethearts, passed through the smoke for seeing good luck.

Once upon a time, long before Weinberger bombed north Africans, before the Bank of Boston laundered money, or Reagan honored the Nazi war dead, the earth was blanketed by a broad mantle of forests. As late as Caesar’s time a person might travel through the woods for two months without gaining an unobstructed view of the sky. The immense forests of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America provided the atmosphere with oxygen and the earth with nutrients. Within the woodland ecology our ancestors did not have to work the graveyard shift, or to deal with flextime, or work from Nine to Five. Indeed, the native Americans whom Captain John Smith encountered in 1606 only worked four hours a week.

In Europe, as in Africa, people honored the woods in many ways. With the leafing of the trees in spring, people celebrated “the fructifying spirit of vegetation,” to use the phrase of J.G. Frazer, the anthropologist. They did this in May, a month named after Maia, the mother of all the gods according to the ancient Greeks, giving birth even to Zeus.

The Greeks had their sacred groves, the Druids their oak worship, the Romans their games in honor of Floralia. In Scotland the herdsman formed circles and danced around fires. The Celts lit bonfires in hilltops to honor their god, Beltane. In the Tyrol people let their dogs bark and made music with pots and pans. In Scandinavia fires were lit and the witches came out.

Everywhere people “went a-Maying” by going into the woods and bringing back leaf, bough, and blossom to decorate their persons, homes, and loved ones with green garlands. Outside theater was performed with characters like “Jack-in-the-Green” and the “Queen of the May.” Trees were planted. Maypoles were erected. Dances were danced. Music was played. Drinks were drunk, and love was made. Winter was over, spring had sprung.

The tradition of Maypole:
By the Middle Ages every English village had its Maypole. The bringing in of the Maypole from the woods was a great occasion and was accompanied by much rejoicing and merrymaking. The Maypoles were of all sizes. And one village would vie with another to show who could produce the tallest Maypole. Maypoles were usually set up for the day in small towns, but in London and the larger towns they were erected permanently.

The Maypole tradition suffered a setback for about a couple of decades since the Puritan Long Parliament stopped it in 1644. However, with the return of the Stuarts, the Maypole reappeared and the festivities of May Day were again enjoyed.

The changes brought about by the Reformation included attempts to do away with practices that were obviously of pagan origin. But the Maypole, or, May tree, was not issued in practice at the behest of the second Stuart.

Although they succeeded in doing this, Maypole with most of the other traditions, many still survived. And Maypole is one of them. In France it merely changed its name. In Perigord and elsewhere, the May Tree became the “Tree of Liberty” and was the symbol of the French Revolution. Despite the new nomenclature, the peasants treated the tree in the same traditional spirit. And they would dance around it the same way as their forefathers had always done.

Maypoles and trees:
Trees have been linked to a part of celebration, perhaps, to the days ancient New Year rites. The association of trees to this celebration has come riding on the back of the spring festival in ancient Europe. Trees have always been the symbol of the great vitality and fertility of nature and were often used at the spring festivals of antiquity. The anthropologist E. O. James finds a strong relationship between the ancient tree related traditions of the British and the Romans. According to James’ description, as a part of the May Day celebration, the youths in old Europe cut down a tree, lopped off the branches leaving a few at the top. They then wrapped it round with violets like the figure of the Attis, the ancient Roman god. At sunrise, they used to take it back to their villages by blowing horns and flutes. In a similar manner, the sacred pine tree representing the god Attis was carried in procession to the temple of Cybele on Rome’s Palatine Hill during the Spring Festival of March 22.

Roots of May Day celebration in America:
The Puritans frowned on May Day, so the day has never been celebrated with as much enthusiasm in the United States as in Great Britain. But the tradition of celebrating May Day by dancing and singing around a maypole, tied with colorful streamers or ribbons, survived as a part of the English tradition. The kids celebrating the day by moving back and forth around the pole with the the streamers, choosing of May queen, and hanging of May baskets on the doorknobs of folks — are all the leftovers of the old European traditions.

The origin of May Day is indissolubly bound up with the struggle for the shorter workday – a demand of major political significance for the working class. This struggle is manifest almost from the beginning of the factory system in the United States.

Although the demand for higher wages appears to be the most prevalent cause for the early strikes in this country, the question of shorter hours and the right to organize were always kept in the foreground when workers formulated their demands against the bosses and the government. As exploitation was becoming intensified and workers were feeling more and more the strain of inhumanly long working hours, the demand for an appreciable reduction of hours became more pronounced.

Already at the opening of the 19th century workers in the United States made known their grievances against working from “sunrise to sunset,” the then prevailing workday. Fourteen, sixteen and even eighteen hours a day were not uncommon. During the conspiracy trial against the leaders of striking cordwainers in 1806, it was brought out that workers were employed as long as nineteen and twenty hours a day.

The twenties and thirties are replete with strikes for reduction of hours of work and definite demands for a 10-hour day were put forward in many industrial centers. The organization of what is considered as the first trade union in the world, the Mechanics’ Union of Philadelphia, preceding by two years the one formed by workers in England, can be definitely ascribed to a strike of building trade workers in Philadelphia in 1827 for the 10-hour day. During the bakers’ strike in New York in 1834 the Workingmen’s Advocate reported that “journeymen employed in the loaf bread business have for years been suffering worse than Egyptian bondage. They have had to labor on an average of eighteen to twenty hours out of the twenty-four.”

The demand in those localities for a 10-hour day soon grew into a movement, which, although impeded by the crisis of 1837, led the federal government under President Van Buren to decree the 10-hour day for all those employed on government work. The struggle for the universality of the 10-hour day, however, continued during the next decades. No sooner had this demand been secured in a number of industries than the workers began to raise the slogan for an 8-hour day. The feverish activity in organizing labor unions during the fifties gave this new demand an impetus which, however, was checked by the crisis of 1857. The demand was, however, won in a few well-organized trades before the crisis. That the movement for a shorter workday was not only peculiar to the United States, but was prevalent wherever workers were exploited under the rising capitalist system, can be seen from the fact that even in far away Australia the building trade workers raised the slogan “8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours rest” and were successful in securing this demand in 1856.

So as you can see May Day became Labor Day for some.

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