May Day occurs on May 1 and refers to several public holidays. In many countries, May Day is synonymous with International Workers' Day, or Labour Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organised by communists, anarchists, socialists, and activist groups. May Day is also a traditional holiday in many cultures.
International Workers' Day
May Day can refer to various labour celebrations conducted on May 1 that commemorate the fight for the eight hour day. May Day in this regard is called International Workers' Day, or Labour Day. The idea for a "workers' holiday" began in Australia in 1856; after a stonemason's victory in securing improved employee rights, April 22nd was declared "Eight-Hour Day", a public holiday. With the idea having spread around the world, the choice of May 1st became a commemoration by the socialist Second International for the people involved in the 1886 Haymarket affair.
The Haymarket affair occurred during the course of a three-day general strike in Chicago, Illinois, United States that involved common laborers, artisans, merchants, and immigrants. Following an incident in which police opened fire and killed four strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. plant, a rally was called for the following day at Haymarket Square. Towards the end of the rally, as police moved in to disperse the event and opened fire on the unarmed crowd on the plea that an unknown assailant threw a bomb into the crowd of police. The bomb and resulting police riot left at least a dozen people dead, including one policeman. A sensational show trial ensued in which eight defendants were openly tried for their political beliefs, and not necessarily for any involvement in the bombing The trial led to the eventual public hanging of four anarchists. The Haymarket incident was a source of outrage from people around the globe. In the following years, memory of the "Haymarket martyrs" was remembered with various May Day job actions and demonstrations.
Traditional May Day celebrations
May Day is related to the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night. May Day falls exactly half of a year from November 1, another cross-quarter day which is also associated with various northern European pagan and neopagan festivals such as Samhain. May Day marks the end of the unfarmable winter half of the year in the Northern hemisphere, and it has traditionally been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations.
As Europe became Christianized the pagan holidays lost their religious character and either changed into popular secular celebrations, as with May Day, or were merged with or replaced by new Christian holidays as with Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and All Saint's Day. In the twentieth century, many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival again.
The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman Goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane. Many pagan celebrations were abandoned or Christianized during the process of conversion in Europe. A more secular version of May Day continues to be observed in Europe and America. In this form, May Day may be best known for its tradition of dancing the Maypole and crowning of the Queen of the May. Various Neopagan groups celebrate reconstructed (to varying degrees) versions of these customs on May the 1st. The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of Spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer. In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is observed as Mary's month, and in these circles May Day is usually a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this connection, in works of art, school skits, and so forth, Mary's head will often be adorned with flowers in a May crowning. Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of "May baskets," small baskets of sweets and/or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbours' doorsteps.
May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. In some parts of the United States, May Baskets are made. These baskets are small and usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone's doorstep. The basket giver would ring the bell and run away. The person receiving the basket would try to catch the fleeing giver. If they caught the person, a kiss was to be exchanged.
Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. vary greatly from region to region and many unite both the holiday's "Green Root" (pagan) and "Red Root" (labor) traditions. Among the largest is the May Day Parade and Pageant created by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, an event that has happened every year since 1975 in Minneapolis and now attracts some 35,000 people.
May 1 also is recognized in the U.S. as Law Day