May Day Festival Celebrations – What’s it all about?

May Day Festival Celebrations

The start of May is celebrated in many countries but for different reasons. May Festival Celebrations are undoubtedly ancient. In Germanic countries we have Walpurgis nacht, a night of witches, costumes, dancing, and bonfires. These festival celebrations can be traced back to at least the eight century. Even older, Beltane is the Gaelic name for May Day rituals that signified the start of summer in Ireland and Scotland. In England, May Day is when rural villages celebrate springtime fertility with traditional village fetes and rituals such as the maypole, around which dancers circle with ribbons. In Rochester UK they hold a Sweeps Festival which is the largest gathering of traditional Morris dancing groups in the world. Its called the Sweeps festival because chimney sweeps used to parade through the streets on one of the few days they were allowed to take off.

In the late 19th century, May Day Festival Celebrations were high jacked for what became known as International Workers’ Day. During the capitalist boom of the 1800s, ordinary workers were desperately poor and had few rights. Some formed Trade Unions from which Socialist parties formed, while others were attracted by the new political ideals of Marxists and Anarchists. There was much exchange of ideas between these groups who believed that acting together in solidarity would give them greater political power. One of the demands that united them was a control on the working hours expected of workers. At its national convention in Chicago, held in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labor), proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” On that day more than 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses across the United States walked off their jobs in the first May Day celebration in US history. In Chicago more and more workers continued to walk off their jobs and on May 3, violence broke out at the McCormick Reaper Works between police and strikers. This eventually led to a demonstration in Haymarket Square to discuss the police brutality. The meeting included families and the mayor of Chicago. At the end of a lively demonstration as the crowd began to disperse, a bomb was thrown into the police ranks. The police fired back and it is estimated seven or eight civilians died, and up to forty were wounded hence it is now remembered as the Haymarket Massacre.

May Day is now an official holiday in over 60 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more.