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Origins and Traditions of May Day


By Eugene W. Plawiuk

The international working class holiday; Mayday, originated in pagan
Europe. It was a festive holy day celebrating the first spring planting.
The ancient Celts and Saxons celebrated May 1st as Beltane or the day of
fire. Bel was the Celtic god of the sun.

The Saxons began their May day celebrations on the eve of May, April 30.
It was an evening of games and feasting celebrating the end of winter
and the return of the sun and fertility of the soil. Torch bearing
peasants and villager would wind their way up paths to the top of tall
hills or mountain crags and then ignite wooden wheels which they would
roll down into the fields.

The May eve celebrations were eventually outlawed by the Catholic
church, but were still celebrated by peasants until the late 1700's.
While good church going folk would shy away from joining in the
celebrations, those less afraid of papal authority would don animal
masks and various costumes, not unlike our modern Halloween. The
revelers, lead by the Goddess of the Hunt; Diana (sometimes played by a
pagan-priest in women's clothing) and the Horned God; Herne, would
travel up the hill shouting, chanting and singing, while blowing hunting
horns. This night became known in Europe as Walpurgisnacht, or night of
the witches

The Celtic tradition of Mayday in the British isles continued to be
celebrated through-out the middle ages by rural and village folk. Here
the traditions were similar with a goddess and god of the hunt.

As European peasants moved away from hunting gathering societies their
gods and goddesses changed to reflect a more agrarian society. Thus
Diana and Herne came to be seen by medieval villagers as fertility
deities of the crops and fields. Diana became the Queen of the May and
Herne became Robin Goodfellow (a predecessor of Robin Hood) or the Green

The Queen of the May reflected the life of the fields and Robin
reflected the hunting traditions of the woods. The rites of mayday were
part and parcel of pagan celebrations of the seasons. Many of these
pagan rites were later absorbed by the Christian church in order to win
over converts from the 'Old Religion'.

Mayday celebrations in Europe varied according to locality, however they
were immensely popular with artisans and villagers until the 19th
Century. The Christian church could not eliminate many of the
traditional feast and holy days of the Old Religion so they were
transformed into Saint days.

During the middle ages the various trade guilds celebrated feast days
for the patron saints of their craft. The shoemakers guild honored St.
Crispin, the tailors guild celebrated Adam and Eve. As late as the 18th
century various trade societies and early craft-unions would enter
floats in local parades still depicting Adam and Eve being clothed by
the Tailors and St. Crispin blessing the shoemaker.

The two most popular feast days for Medieval craft guilds were the Feast
of St. John, or the Summer Solstice and Mayday. Mayday was a raucous and
fun time, electing a queen of the May from the eligible young women of
the village, to rule the crops until harvest. Our tradition of beauty
pageants may have evolved , albeit in a very bastardized form, from the
May Queen.

Besides the selection of the May Queen was the raising of the phallic
Maypole, around which the young single men and women of the village
would dance holding on to the ribbons until they became entwined, with
their ( hoped for) new love.

And of course there was Robin Goodfellow, or the Green Man who was the
Lord of Misrule for this day. Mayday was a celebration of the common
people, and Robin would be the King/Priest/Fool for a day. Priests and
Lords were the butt of many jokes, and the Green Man and his supporters;
mummers would make jokes and poke fun of the local authorities. This
tradition of satire is still conducted today in Newfoundland, with the
Christmas Mummery.

The church and state did not take kindly to these celebrations,
especially during times of popular rebellion. Mayday and the Maypole
were outlawed in the 1600's. Yet the tradition still carried on in many
rural areas of England. The trade societies still celebrated Mayday
until the 18th Century.

As trade societies evolved from guilds, to friendly societies and
eventually into unions, the craft traditions remained strong into the
early 19th century. In North America Dominion Day celebrations in Canada
and July 4th celebrations in the United States would be celebrated by
tradesmen still decorating floats depicting their ancient saints such as
St. Crispin.

Our modern celebration of Mayday as a working class holiday evolved from
the struggle for the eight hour day in 1886. May 1, 1886 saw national
strikes in the United States and Canada for an eight hour day called by
the Knights of Labour. In Chicago police attacked striking workers
killing six.

The next day at a demonstration in Haymarket Square to protest the
police brutality a bomb exploded in the middle of a crowd of police
killing eight of them. The police arrested eight anarchist trade
unionists claiming they threw the bombs. To this day the subject is
still one of controversy. The question remains whether the bomb was
thrown by the workers at the police or whether one of the police's own
agent provocateurs dropped it in their haste to retreat from charging

In what was to become one of the most infamous show trials in America in
the 19th century, but certainly not to be the last of such trials
against radical workers, the State of Illinois tried the anarchist
workingmen for fighting for their rights as much as being the actual
bomb throwers. Whether the anarchist workers were guilty or innocent was
irrelevant. They were agitators, fomenting revolution and stirring up
the working class, and they had to be taught a lesson.

Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle and Adolph Fischer were found
guilty and executed by the State of Illinois.

In Paris in 1889 the International Working Men's Association (the First
International) declared May 1st an international working class holiday
in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs. The red flag became the
symbol of the blood of working class martyrs in their battle for workers

Mayday, which had been banned for being a holiday of the common people,
had been reclaimed once again for the common people.