May Day is universally celebrated, but in different ways for different reasons. With roots going all the way back to pre-Roman pagan rites, May Day on May 1 has had many incarnations in the northern hemisphere. From the first day of summer (in an earlier calendar) to a celebration of spring, and from a Christian religious holiday to a day honoring workers, different countries, religions and political ideals have usurped the original celebration of fertility and rebirth May Day traditionally represented, until today when May Day means many things to different people.
Perhaps the hippies of the 1960s had the right idea by wresting May Day from the Soviet show of military might and the Catholic Church’s reverence to the Blessed Virgin Mary (and, later, when it was a day honoring St Joseph, who was the Patron Saint of Workers, created just to counter the Soviet use) to recreate a whole “flowers in your hair” maypole dancing celebration of the rejuvenating power of nature’s rebirth each spring. Whatever your political leanings or religious beliefs, May Day is a good time to set aside differences and celebrate all that we have in common.
May Day Activities
1. Give a gift of flowers
Traditionally, a gift of a “May basket” containing a small plant or some flowers was given to a neighbor. In France it would be a lily of the valley as decreed by King Charles in the 16th century. This was often anonymously left at their front door as a celebration of spring. Today a small cutting or plant division from your garden would be a nice way to revitalize that tradition.
2. Dance to celebrate May Day
Most common of old traditions is a May Dance, where young people holding colorful ribbons attached to the top of a maypole dance around the pole weaving in and out, the boys in one direction and the girls in another until they are pulled together as the ribbons wrap around the pole. Alternately, a Morris Dance can be performed. Both dances celebrate fertility and the fecundity of spring.
3. Take the day off
That’s right. In solidarity with the workers and policemen who died in the violence surrounding the first strikes for a safe work environment, (known as the Haymarket Affair) take off for the day. Your work is not the 16 hour day, 7 days a week nightmare they were protesting, but 8 hours off is enough time to “do a little dance, make a little love, and get down tonight!”
Why We Love May Day
A. May Day is a day to rejoice!
May Day’s importance as a celebration of fertility is consistent through the ages. Agrarian societies followed the seasons closely by necessity. In the northern hemisphere, winter’s end brought the new life of spring, and May Day was a cause of celebration, of release from the harsh winter into the bounty that would be summer.
B. May Day is a day of reverence
Since its religious (pagan) origins, May Day, (and the month of May in general) was incorporated into Christian beliefs as a day to celebrate the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus Christ, and motherhood in general. It is no coincidence that modern Mothers Day falls in early May, or that we anthropomorphize nature as Mother Nature. This is how we revere motherhood, fertility and birth.
C. May Day honors the workers
May Day was traditionally the day off after the fields had been prepared and the seeds planted. It was the secession of labor that the familiar celebrations sprang from. Many countries celebrate May Day as a worker’s holiday, with some celebrations amounting to massive military parades while others are more benign. "Labor Day" or "International Workers' Day", as May Day is alternately known, originated in the US in 1886 with massive labor strikes to demand a legal 8 hour workday and safe working conditions in the factories, with rallies and demonstrations in the streets.