A hundred years ago, May Day was a very big deal

village scene
Public Domain Village Scene with Dance around the May Pole, Bruegel.

May Day used to be a happy celebration of spring and fertility. Now it is almost completely ignored. What happened?

May Day used to be a very big deal, "a celebration of all that is free and life-giving in the world" and a happy celebration of spring. According to The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of MAY DAY, everybody was into it.

The Greeks had their sacred groves, the Druids their oak worship, the Romans their games in honor of Floralia. In Scotland the herdsman formed circles and danced around fires. The Celts lit bonfires in hilltops to honor their god, Beltane. In the Tyrol people let their dogs bark and made music with pots and pans. In Scandinavia fires were lit and the witches came out.

Everywhere people "went a-Maying" by going into the woods and bringing back leaf, bough, and blossom to decorate their persons, homes, and loved ones with green garlands. Outside theater was performed with characters like "Jack-in-the-Green" and the "Queen of the May." Trees were planted. Maypoles were erected. Dances were danced. Music was played. Drinks were drunk, and love was made. Winter was over, spring had sprung.

It's been political for a very long time.

Miles Standish breaking up the party in Plymouth, 1627Miles Standish breaking up the party in Plymouth, 1627/Public Domain

There were occasional attempts to stop the fun; the British Parliament banned it in 1550, demanding that maypoles be destroyed and games be outlawed. One party pooper wrote, "And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce about it, as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their Idolles." We can't have that.

The Puritans in Britain and America, the church and the aristocrats kept trying to kill it because "toil was godly" and the working class should be out there working, not partying. Around the time of the American Revolution, people fought back. According to the History,

Chimney sweeps and dairy maids led the resistance. The sweeps dressed up as women on May Day, or put on aristocratic perriwigs. They sang songs and collected money. When the Earl of Bute in 1763 refused to pay, the opprobrium was so great that he was forced to resign. Milk maids used to go a-Maying by dressing in floral garlands, dancing and getting the dairymen to distribute their milk-yield freely. Soot and milk workers thus helped to retain the holyday right into the industrial revolution.

Haymarket riotHarpers Magazine coverage of Haymarket Massacre/Public Domain

Really, everyone was having such a good time, but once the industrial revolution took hold, it got harder for people to take the day off work, and the long hours made a thing such as May Day impossible for most workers. But the day was still important for workers, and labor unions were pushing the Eight Hour Movement, to limit the hours worked, with a declaration: "RESOLVED... that eight hours shall constitute a legal day's labor, from and after May 1, 1886."

In May 1886, a crowd gathered in Chicago's Haymarket Square, which turned into a debacle. Dynamite was thrown; police reacted by shooting into the crowd, killing four; a trial was held and four workers were hanged, who came to be considered martyrs for the labor movement. From that day on, it became a day of protest about workers' rights. In 1889 it was declared International Workers Day. The Russian revolution started on it, which really turned the day from green to red in the minds of Americans.

One hundred years ago today:

May Day in 1919 was a very big deal. These were hard times, with millions of soldiers returning home from the war, high rates of unemployment, a high cost of living due to inflation and shortages of housing. In Winnipeg, Canada, a massive general strike shut the city down for weeks.

telephone workers strikeMass Moments/Public Domain

In Boston, the young women who were the backbone of the telephone networks went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. According to Mass Moments,

It may have been a desirable job but it was not an easy one. Telephone companies had strict rules for all aspects of operators' behavior on the job. Merely to get the job, a woman had to pass height, weight, and arm length tests to ensure that she could work in the tight quarters afforded switchboard operators. Operators had to sit with perfect posture for long hours in straight-backed chairs. They were not permitted to communicate with each other. They were to respond quickly, efficiently, and patiently — even when dealing with the most irascible customers.

They didn't get a lot of support from the mainstream unions, who didn't welcome women. But so many people now depended on the telephone that New England was paralyzed. Even the police in Boston refused to do their usual strikebreaking, not being interested in beating up young women. (Later in the year, they actually went on strike too.) The phone company quickly settled, but "when the strike shut down the system, the telephone company decided it had to reduce its dependence on operators. Within a few years, the 'automatic' dial telephone was introduced and operator assistance was no longer needed for local calls."

Now, in America, it's Loyalty Day.

Loyalty Day© Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty Images/ Unions declare their love for America on a Loyalty Day Parade in New York 1973

By 1921, the American government had had enough of all of this and declared that May 1 would be celebrated as Americanization Day as an alternative to the International Workers' Day. In 1958, during the Red Scare, President Eisenhower declared it to be Loyalty Day, " a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom." That's where it remains today in America, declared every year by the President. In his proclamation for 2019, the President confirms that it is still all about fighting the red scare: "We renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country — our Republic was conceived in freedom and will remain free."

May Day In Maryland, 1907Library of Congress/Public Domain

It's all a bit sad. May Day was so much more fun before it got political. In honor of how it used to be, get outside today. Maybe do a leape and daunce or two. Enjoy the day and hug a tree. Or a socialist, whatever.

A hundred years ago, May Day was a very big deal
May Day used to be a happy celebration of spring and fertility. Now it is almost completely ignored. What happened?

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