May Day Origins & Celebrations.

Once upon a time, May 1st was considered the most important day of the year for the Celts in the British Isles, who celebrated the festival of Beltane to symbolize the return of life and fertility to the world. The festival of Beltane divided the year in half, between light and dark, with a ritual of symbolic fire. When the Romans conquered the British Isles, they brought with them their five-day celebration known as Floralia, devoted to the worship of the goddess of flowers, Flora. In medieval times, villagers would enter the woods to find a maypole that was set up for the day in small towns (or sometimes permanently in larger cities), and people would dance around the pole with colorful streamers and ribbons.

During the 19th century, May Day took on a new meaning in the United States as a result of the 19th-century labor movement for workers' rights and an eight-hour workday. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions proclaimed “Eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” The following year, the Knights of Labor backed the proclamation as both groups encouraged workers to strike and demonstrate.

On May 1, 1886, over 300,000 workers (40,000 in Chicago alone) from 13,000 businesses walked out of their jobs across the country. The protests were initially peaceful but turned violent at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. On May 4, a rally was planned at Haymarket Square to protest the killing and wounding of several workers by the police. An individual who was never identified threw a bomb into the police ranks, leading to chaos and the death of at least seven police officers and eight civilians.

The Haymarket Riot, also known as the Haymarket Affair, set off a wave of national repression, with eight men labeled as anarchists convicted despite there being no solid evidence linking them to the bombing. In 1890, over 300,000 people protested at a May Day rally in London in honor of the “Haymarket Martyrs.” The workers’ history of May 1 was eventually embraced by many governments worldwide, not just those with socialist or communist influences. Today, May Day is celebrated as an International Workers’ Day on May 1, 2023.


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