International Workers’ Day is the commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, which occurred after an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police as they dispersed a public assembly during a general strike for the eight-hour workday. Strangely enough (or maybe not strangely at all) it coincides with a much older holiday with totally pagan origins.
May Day is related to the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night. May Day falls exactly half a year from November 1, another cross-quarter day which is also associated with various northern European pagan and the year in the Northern hemisphere, and it has traditionally been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations.
The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers.While February 1 was the first day of Spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer. In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is observed as Mary’s month, and in these circles May Day is usually a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this connection, in works of art, school skits, and so forth, Mary’s head will often be adorned with flowers in a May crowning. Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of “May baskets,” small baskets of sweets and/or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbours’ doorsteps.
How people celebrate the May Day? In short that depends. Here are some more interesting tidibits I found about the celebrations in different countries:
Traditional British May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a Maypole. Much of this tradition derive from the pagan Anglo-Saxon and customs held during “Þrimilci-mōnaþ” (the Old English name for the month of May meaning Month of Three Milkings) along with many Celtic traditions. Of course these celebrations can’t be called “widespread” nowadays and their character changes depending on the location. Most often it will be just an open air concert.
May Day has been celebrated in Ireland since pagan times as the feast of Bealtaine and in latter times as Mary’s day. Traditionally, bonfires were lit to mark the coming of summer and to banish the long nights of winter. Officially Irish May Day holiday is the first Monday in May. Old traditions such as bonfires are no longer widely observed, though the practice still persists in some communities, such as Arklow.
On May 1, 1561, King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. He decided to offer a lily of the valley each year to the ladies of the court. At the beginning of the 20th century, it became custom to give a sprig of lily of the valley, a symbol of springtime, on May 1. The government permits individuals and workers’ organisations to sell them tax-free. It is also traditional for the lady receiving the sprig of lily of the valley to give a kiss in return. Nowadays, people may present loved ones either with bunches of lily of the valley or dog rose flowers. You must admit it is a far nicer custom that these rowdy marches with flags and banners. Say what you might but French people know how to make life a bit more pleasant!
In rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the wrapping of a Maibaum (maypole). Young people use this opportunity to party, while the day itself is used by many families to get some fresh air and plan some nice trips.
Celebrations among the younger generations take place on May Day Eve, most prominent being the afternoon ‘crowning’ of statues in towns around the country with a student cap.
May Day is known as Vappu, from the Swedish term. This is a public holiday that is the only carnival-style street festivity in the country. People young and old, particularly students, party outside, picnic and wear caps or other decorative clothing.
Some Finns make a special lemonade from lemons, brown sugar, and yeast called “sima”. It contains very little alcohol, so even children can drink it. You can also buy a similar product in all stores. Some Finns also make doughnuts and a crisp pastry fried in oil made from a similar, more liquid dough.