By John Copeland

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

Orion, the hunter, after meeting the sisters, was so enamored with the young women that he pursued them relentlessly. Taking pity on them, Zeus changed the sisters into a flock of doves and set them into 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.

As a day, May 1st has probably had more festivals and events associated with it than any other day of the year and has been celebrated around the world for eons. In pre-Christian Europe, May Day was called Beltane by the Celts and other ancient Europeans. It was the second cross-quarter day of the year, situated halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice.

Imbolc (Groundhog Day) on Feb. 2, the first cross-quarter day of the year, was filled with the anticipation of spring’s renewal of life, but the true essence of May Day was focused on the explosion of life that unfolds as summer arrives.

Even today, in many countries, its 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 its 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 third 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 as 19th 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 workday be shortened to eight hours.

The protests were not immediately successful, but the organizers continued to press for reform each May 1st. Their efforts eventually proved effective, and the eight-hour workday eventually became the norm. Labor leaders, socialists and anarchists around the world took the American strikes and their fallout as a rallying point, choosing May Day as a day for demonstrations, parades and speeches. As a day 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. A 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 lifes 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 lifes processes.