Holiday History

By John Copeland

May is named for Maia, the Greek goddess of fertility and eldest of the seven Pleiades sisters.

Orion the hunter, after meeting the sisters, was so enamored with the young women that he relentlessly pursued them. Taking pity on their plight, Zeus set them in the heavens as a striking constellation of stars in the northeast quadrant of the sky.

Maia’s festival was held at the beginning of May and celebrated with spring flowers and blooms.

May 1st has probably had more festivals and events associated with it than any other day of the year; it has been celebrated around the world for eons.

In pre-Christian Europe, May Day was called Beltane by the Celts and other ancient Europeans and was the second “cross-quarter” day of the year, situated halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice.

If Feb. 2 — Ground hog Day or Imbolc — the first cross-quarter day of the year, was filled with the anticipation of spring’s renewal of life, the true essence of May Day was focused on the explosion of life that unfolds as summer arrives.

Even today, in many countries, it’s a national holiday and a day to celebrate spring. In other nations it is a day for political protests and organized labor rallies, but it is also observed as Saint Joseph’s feast day.

For most Americans, May Day has become an obscure holiday, one that many associate either with a distress call or the once feared specter of communist domination. Yet it does have a long and notable history, and it’s a great example of the collision of paradoxical elements that occur on many of our holidays.

In the past, May Day was an occasion for revelry and celebrating fertility and the start of summer. On May Eve, it was once customary to light bonfires on hilltops. Cattle were driven between the fires to ensure their fertility and a bountiful harvest. Men and women ran through the bonfires, too, for cleansing and good luck in the year ahead.

It was the time when the Maypole was raised in villages. The pole was brightly painted and hung with greenery and ribbons. Unmarried men and women of the village would dance, holding on to the ribbons until they became entwined, with their hoped-for new love. In colonial America, Puritans frowned on May Day, so as a holiday it was never celebrated with as much enthusiasm in the United States as in other countries.

However, here in America we did have a May Day tradition that was still practiced when I started elementary school. We would make colorful paper baskets and fill them with spring flowers. On May Day morning, we would run around our neighborhood placing the baskets on front doors, ringing the doorbell and yelling, “Happy May Day!” as we dashed away. I guess this recollection kind of dates me, as it stopped pretty much about the time I got to fourth grade.

But like putting new wine in old bottles, we are forever changing the meanings of our seasonal holidays. If an event coincides with a date already symbolically charged with meaning, it can often give a new twist to an old set of customs — the invention of a new tradition.

The Industrial Revolution shifted May Day away from its associations with nature’s fertility and agriculture. Nineteenth-century American workers began to recognize the deteriorating working conditions in the rapidly industrializing work place. On May 1, 1886, across the country, workers and labor groups went on strike, demanding that the standard work day be shortened to eight hours.

The protests were not immediately successful, but the organizers’ efforts proved effective down the line and the eight-hour workday eventually became the norm. Labor leaders, socialists, and anarchists around the world took the American strikes as a rallying point, choosing May Day as the day for demonstrations, parades and speeches. It came to be recognized as the epitome of all socialist movements — power to the workers.

When the Communists took control in Russia, they instituted May Day as the day to celebrate the triumph of the worker. The nationalistic parade became the centerpiece of their May Day. Little did those who paraded in Moscow on May Day, during the Soviet period, realize the irony that their major holiday first took root in America. In America, in a reaction to communism, the first Monday in September was set aside to honor American labor.

If there is any connection between the May Day of old — a day on which people participated in ceremonies dedicated to stimulating the regeneration of life’s processes — and modern May Day as a holiday that anticipates the rebirth of a better world community, maybe it has something to do with the idea that human action is necessary in the reinvigoration of life’s processes.

And lastly, for me, the merry first of May will always be associated with the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire. Back then, I was a member of Once Inn Favoure, a band of players who performed one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “The Reeve’s Tail.” May Day and May-ing always fell during the run of the Pleasure Faire and represented the spirit of spring for us, the renewal of life and the anticipation of summer. On those May Days we were all filled with hope for what the future held.

However you choose to observe the 1st of May, I hope you have a Happy May Day each year.