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Boomer Bytes #68 May Day – What’s That?

Editor’s Note: Below is another column in Steve Canipe’s series called Boomer Bytes. The column, as the title suggests, will focus on a variety of topics that may be of interest to baby boomers, those born between 1946 and 1964. But Canipe also hopes to start a conversation with younger generations, too. Check out an introduction and Canipe’s (first self-titled) column here.

May Day – What’s That?

By Steve Canipe

If you are reading this on 1 May, let me wish you a happy May Day. You’ve probably heard the term before. If you are an older boomer, the term May Day probably means another holiday or celebration that had come to be called by the same name. So there are really two different holidays referred to as May Day.


The first of the holidays occurred in pre-Christian times with the festival of the plants. It was also called Floralia, to honor the Roman goddess of flowers.   In the old calendar it was held on 27 April. There were other celebrations that had similar origins. In Germanic countries the holiday was called Walpurgis Night. Gaelic celebrations, called Beltane, celebrated the same thing but were held on 30 April.

As Europe became Christianized, the old pagan holidays lost their religious focus and became a secular party. What was a fairly common occurrence was taking the formerly pagan festivals and converting them to Christian celebrations.

The May Day in ancient times grew into a celebration in Europe that was commemorated by dancing around the maypole and also there was a crowning of a May Queen. What has faded in the 20th Century was the giving of “May baskets.” This entailed leaving small baskets of flowers and other treats on the doorsteps of one’s neighbors. Some believe that this “May basket” may have led to Easter baskets.

In the 18th Century, many Roman Catholics have observed through devotions to the Virgin Mary. The idea of this can be seen in the adornment of paintings and other illustrations of Mary with flowers adorning her head.

The Catholic saint of workers is St. Joseph the Worker. Joseph was the husband of Mary, Mother of Jesus and His surrogate father. It was this observance that has given way to the Worker’s celebration also known as May Day. This was particularly strong in the former Soviet Union and other Communist countries.

Since May 1 was the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, the worker’s parties around the world elected to celebrate on this day. In many, if not most cases, these were socialist or communist organizations; to the chagrin of more traditional labor parties in the United States. What I remember best was that on May 1, the Soviet Union elected to display their military might. I remember very well the parades in front of the Kremlin on Red Square in Moscow. The tanks, soldiers, missiles, and other examples of military prowess were all on display, signifying the power of the Communists and the workers…the proletariat not the bourgeoisie.

Historically in the Soviet Union the celebrations became enshrined in 1918 as the Day of the International Solidarity of Workers. Parades and workers’ marches happened in most Soviet cities. This continued until 1990. In 1992 the holiday was renamed as the Spring and Labor Day by the Russian Parliament. Now most in Russia use the time to garden and spend time with their families. In the fall of 2012, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev approved that the May Day holiday would start on 1 May but extend until 5 May.

With the demise of the Communist Soviet Union, the current May Day celebrations in Russia are not what they once were. But it is still celebrated in many countries as International Worker’s Day. Some countries call the celebration Labor Day; but in the United States our Labor Day is celebrated in September.

Russia in 2014 reinstituted the more militaristic parade along Red Square and they were expecting 5 million people but there were only about one hundred thousand who showed up, according to an online article in USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2014/04/30/moscow-may-day/8526297/). Reuters News also covered the parade online (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/01/us-ukraine-crisis-russia-mayday-idUSBREA400E620140501)

Some believe that the May Day/International Workers Day is a celebration of the Haymarket affair which occurred in Chicago on 4 May 1886. This affair was sparked by police trying to break up a public demonstration during a labor strike. An unidentified assailant threw a bomb at the police. The response was one of deadly force with the police firing on the crowd of demonstrators and killing four of the people demonstrating. As might be suspected this created a great deal of animosity. Some of the current feelings of minorities towards the police might mirror the resentment of the Haymarket times.

The May Day observances after the Haymarket affair occasionally seemed to lead to violence, including the 1894 May Day Riots in Cleveland, Ohio. Shortly after the Haymarket affair, President Grover Cleveland called for a public holiday to celebrate labor and thereby he hoped to defuse the tensions which were running high.. Because of not wanting the Labor Day celebration to be too closely connected to the May Day turmoil, the United States Labor Day holiday was set in September, on the first Monday. Once this holiday, which continues to be celebrated on the first Monday in September, was widely recognized; the labor violence in the country seemed to subside.

Partially to combat the growing unrest and the worldwide worker’s movement, in 1955 Pope Pius XII, created a feast of St. Joseph in a counterpoint to the Communist and Socialist workers’ celebrations.

Many of the American May Day traditions come directly from our English backgrounds, although other traditions from other countries have become a part of our celebrations. In England, May Day was a celebration of farming and getting soils ready for planting; this observance occurred around the beginning of May but not necessarily on the first. This observance included the fecundity of animals and included people as well as plants. Since most planting had been done by 1 May, it was believed alright to give farmers the day off, especially since seed germination had not happened to any great degree and there were, of yet, no crops to till.

Throughout much of Europe there is a Bank Holiday associated with 1 May but the first day itself is not a holiday unless it falls on a Monday; much like our Labor Day in September. Puritans when they gained control of England abolished the May Day holiday but it was restored when Charles II returned to power in 1630.

One May Day celebration in Romania, which did not catch on in the United States, is called ziua bețivilor (drunkards’ day)! This day had to the Romanians, at least, a seemingly logical reason to be – it was celebrated to ensure good wine making in the autumn.

Whether the May Day celebration is a time for workers, in honor of a springtime to come, or for St. Joseph in the Catholic tradition, there is a widespread celebration in and around the first of May which happens many countries of the world but mostly in Europe. Specifics of the worldwide observations can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_Day.

What do you plan to do on May Day? Are you more of a maypole dancer or a worker demonstrator or somewhat a bit of both? Whichever tradition is more you, if you would please share your thoughts in the space below or send me an email to boomerbytes@yahoo.com.   Happy May Day!!