For centuries, May Day has been a spring celebration holiday in Europe. Associated in Ancient Rome with Flora, the goddess of flowers, in Celtic regions with the spring festival of Beltane, and in Germanic countries it is Walpurgis Night, the celebration of St. Walburga who brought Christianity to Germany. Traditional celebrations include dancing around a maypole, and crowning the Queen of May. It was traditionally a day off for farmers, and this practice survives in many countries. Some interesting May Day traditions include:
– in Bulgaria, May 1 is Irminden, is a festival for scaring away snakes and lizards. People will jump over fires while making noises to scare snakes.
– in Finland, young people celebrate on the night of April 30th by crowning public statues with students’ caps. They also drink a special lemonade and eat doughnuts.
– in Romania, country women do not work in the fields or in the home, as a charm for avoiding hail and bad storms.
– in Hawaii, May 1 is Lei Day, a celebration of island culture and Native Hawaiians
On a more serious note…
Haymarket Affair – May Day, 1886
German immigrants in Chicago were tired. In 1886, many working class people laboured for 60 hours a week, during a six-day work week, for the wages of $1.50 a day. Protests in support of an 8 hour work day had been ongoing for years, with limited success. Union leaders across the United States met and decided that May 1, 1886 would be the date by which the 8 hour work week would become the new standard. On May 1, tens of thousands of workers in major cities went on strike, leading protests and marches in the streets. In Chicago, police shot two protestors on May 3rd. The next evening, a peaceful protest gathered in Haymarket Square. The strike leaders made speeches, and the police arrived. Someone threw a homemade dynamite bomb at the police, killing one man and wounding six others. Police fired on the crowd, and more than seventy people were wounded. Four strike leaders were hanged a year later. The last words of one strike leader are carved on the Haymarket Martyr’s Monument in Chicago: “The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.” In memory of the Haymarket Affair, May 1 became an official worker’s holiday in many countries around the world.
You may be familiar with the distress signal “mayday!” There are several stories as to its origin. It could be derived from the French phrase “venez m’aider,” meaning “come help me,” or it could have been coined randomly. Be careful how you use it! Misusing a mayday signal in the United States carries a jail term of six years plus fines of $250,000!