Once upon a time when Europe had not yet been Christianized, May Day was a time for celebration. It is one of the cross quarter days halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. For most places above 45
north latitude this is the real beginning of
idyllic spring weather perfect for the Roman festival of Flora or the Gallic
holiday of Beltane.
It's sad to see how the old Pagan culture has been papered over. I have a few born again Pagan friends upstate that promise this weekend to celebrate May Day in the traditional raucous fashion. Odd how the one Pagan custom of dancing around the Maypole still continues on, I have even seen Christian churches host them, though you don't need to be a classically trained Freudian psychologist to see the phallic symbolism.
May Day is also the international day of labor in at least 80 industrial nations -except of course for the United States. It looks like an another example of "American Exceptionalism" like how the world uses the metric system and we still stick to inches, feet, yards and miles but the history is a little more complicated than that. The May Day / Labor Day holiday is not a communist invention but started right here in the United States.
In the 1880s one of the first labor organizations was The Knights of Labor. They pushed for the standard 8 hour work day. Of course the factory owners were not amused. What became known as the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, May 4th 1886 was one of those defining moments in history.
When the police advanced on a peaceful protest rally a homemade bomb was thrown into ranks of the advancing officers. One officer was killed on the spot, a Mathias Degan, and eight others wounded.
The police opened fire. It is still up to dispute how many people were killed or wounded, particularly the number of police shot by what we call friendly fire. The trail afterwards of seven defendants was just as confusing. The bomber was never discovered and brought to trial.
International Labor Organizations adopted the May 1st date to commemorate both the massacre and the establishment of the eight hour work day. President Grover Cleveland and others wanted sweep the Haymarket massacre under the rug. Of course most students in this country aren't taught that. American History is usually left to the meaningless trivia like Grover Cleveland was the only person to be elected president in two non consecutive terms. The real history, most of all the labor unrest and the beginning of labor unions in America can be best ignored.
By 1894 the first Monday in September became the Federal holiday, Labor Day, in the United States as the May 1st holiday has a life of its own in the rest of the world. I have heard some people, mostly business owners, say how having the summer season start with Memorial Day and end with Labor Day is good for the economy. From their viewpoint what's good for business is what's good for the country. Though it does diminish the importance of the two holidays and the reasons why they even exist.
In this modern world we can easily lose the meaning of old holidays, past traditions and our history. The public square isn't really a place anymore and people spend less time doing anything that isn't work, shopping or vegetating in front of a screen.
Slowly the past and the future fade away and we only have now. Not the now of pleasant meditation when being fully aware of your environment. No, it's the kind of now where everything is either an emergency or an escape.
Think about that as the eight hour work day disappears. Think about it when your smart phone rings at the dinner table and you have to take that call. You hope your family understands but it's work related and jobs are so hard to keep.
Oh... one small bit of trivia. In the beginning of the 20th century there where a few very conservative groups that wanted to make May 1st "Law and Order Day".