What is May Day?

May Day

May Day

According to T.S. Eliot, “April is the cruelest month.” Maybe he was onto something. After all, a lot of crappy things have happened in April: Lincoln’s assassination, the sinking of the Titanic, and the birth of Hitler, to name a few. To top it all off, taxes are due.  So, as far as I’m concerned, there are plenty of reasons to celebrate May 1st, or May Day.

First off, though, let’s get one thing straight: May Day has nothing to do with distress call “mayday.” (The radio term “mayday” for distress derives from the French term M’aidez, which translates into English as “help me!”)

The Ancient Origins of May Day

Traditionally, pagans celebrated May Day as the midpoint between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice.  In their version of May Day, the Romans celebrated Florialia, named after the Roman goddess of flowers, vegetation, and fertility, Flora. The Florialia included dancing, games, and theatrical performances. In 68 C.E., under the rule of Emperor Galba, the Florialia reportedly showcased an elephant walking a tightrope. Your guess is as good as mine.

The Celts celebrated the Beltaine Festival, which translates from the Gaelic to “return of the sun.” The Germans, in their version of May Day, celebrated Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht), also known as Witches’ Night (Hexennacht). The Germans believed that witches met with the devil on The Brocken, the highest peak in Northern Germany on April 30th, the night before the Feast of St. Walpurga, which is celebrated on May Day- the Catholic Church canonized her on May 1st 870 C.E.

Of course, of all the ancient May Day traditions, perhaps none is more iconic than the dance around the maypole, which is a large wooden pole around which folks dance with ribbons, wrapping them around the pole as they circle it. In popular culture, the movie The Wicker Man has one of  the most notable maypole scene- if you’re interested in checking out the film, try the original 1973 version. (Stay away from the underwhelming 2006 version with Nicholas Cage- I would advise staying away from most Nicholas Cage films, but maybe that’s just me.)

The Origins of May Day and Workers’ Rights Movements

Although May Day originated as the celebration of the coming spring, we now associate May Day with workers’ rights and labor movements across the globe. This association began in 1886 when workers from across the U.S. went on strike demanding 8-hour workdays. Most notably, the protests culminated in the Haymarket Affair in Chicago- labor activists detonated a bomb near Haymarket square when police broke up their labor meeting. In 1889, The Second International Socialist Congress declared that May 1st as International Workers’ Day.

Loyalty Day Instead of May Day

While May Day is celebrated as a workers’ rights day throughout much of the world, the U.S refused to sanction it as an official holiday.  In 1958, as  anti-communist fervor gripped the country, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a declaration that May 1st would be known as Loyalty Day in the United States, distancing the U.S. government from being perceived as supporting communism or socialism. According to Eisenhower’s proclamation, Loyalty Day is “for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.” Every president since Eisenhower has declared May 1st as Loyalty Day.

Modern Workers’ Rights Movements on May Day

In 2012, Occupy Wall Street called for a general strike on May Day, and in 2006,  protesters across the U.S. rallied in support of A Day Without Immigrants. (The name originated from from the satirical documentary A Day Without a Mexican.) This year on May Day, organizers are planning A Day Without Immigrants protests throughout the U.S.- even colleges and universities are joining in.

May Day in the Tech World (Reboot Day)

In 2000, a group of techies decided to make May 1st their collective reboot day. On this day, all participants agreed to reboot their site at the same time on the same day. Although Reboot Day took an eight year hiatus, from 2008-2016, Tobias Van Schneider has picked up the mantle and Reboot Day will again be a time for companies to collectively reboot their websites.

So, whether you think of May Day as a to day frolic around a maypole, watch an elephant walk on a tightrope, meet up with the devil on a mountaintop, fight for workers’ rights, or to reboot your website, one thing is certain: it’s a lot better than April.

Matthew Groner

Matthew Groner is a Staff Writer for Sporcle. He enjoys foraging for gourmet mushrooms and calculating the odds of the Kansas City Chiefs winning a Super Bowl in his lifetime.

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Matthew Groner
About Matthew Groner 21 Articles
Matthew Groner is a Staff Writer for Sporcle. He enjoys foraging for gourmet mushrooms and calculating the odds of the Kansas City Chiefs winning a Super Bowl in his lifetime.