May Day (May first) is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival. May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and is celebrated unofficially in many other countries.
The month of May goes back to the Greek goddess Maia for its name. She is the most important of the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) and the mother of Hermes (Mercury). Some form of this goddess’s name was known to people from Ireland and as far away as India. The Romans called her Maius, goddess of Summer, and honored her during Ambarvalia, a family festival for the purification and protection of farmland.
The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries
In the Celtic cultures, May was called Mai or Maj, a month of sexual freedom. Green was worn during this month to honor the Earth Mother.
May 1 was the Celtic festival of Beltane, a festival celebrating the fertility of all things. Cattle were driven through the Beltane bonfires for purification and fertility.
In Wales, Creiddylad was a character connected with this festival and was often called the May Queen. The maypole and its dance are a remnant of these old festivities.
Bona Dea, the Roman Good Goddess, had her festival on the night between May 2 and 3. No men were allowed to attend.
The Greeks had a special festival for the god Pan during May. Pan was a wild-looking deity that was half-man, half-goat. Pan invented the syrinx, or pan-pipes, made out of reeds.
In Finland, May 1 was celebrated as Rowan Witch Day, a time of honoring the goddess Rauni, who was associated with the mouton ash or rowan whose twigs and branches were used as protection against witches and evil in that part of the world.
In more modern tradition, May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. In some parts of the United States, May Baskets are made. These are small baskets usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone’s doorstep. The giver rings the bell and runs away. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver and if they catch the person, a kiss is exchanged.
Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. include the holidays “Green Root” (pagan) and “Red Root” (labor) traditions.
International Workers’ Day (AKA May Day) is a celebration of the international labor movement and left-wing movements. It commonly sees organized street demonstrations and marches by working people and their labor unions throughout most of the world. For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement called for a General Strike that year on May Day.
NPR reports that May Day is “the opposite of capitalism.”
On May 1, 1886, anarchists and labor activists in Chicago began a multi-day strike in what became known as the Haymarket Affair. The protests turned violent when police attacked workers. Meeting in the city’s Haymarket Square, things turned bloodier and a bomb even exploded and police and civilians were killed.