May Day! May Day!
(not to be confused with the international call of distress “M’aider! M’aider!” French for: Help me! Help me!)
There are two distinct May Days.
One is political and American. The other pagan and Greek.
If you walk into Union Square tomorrow you might come across both.
You’ll see posters on light poles announcing the annual May Fair at the Grace Church Sunday School and you’d see a demonstration for Equality in Worker’s Rights.
Let’s talk politics first.
Happy May Day Comrades.
May Day was invented in the United States and yet we are one a handful of industrialized nations that neglects to celebrate it.
On May 1, workers around the world will celebrate their Labor Day with rallies and speeches, picnics, demonstrations and maybe a riot or two.
Not many Americans realize that the celebrations being held in foreign lands, like the May Day Parade in Moscow, actually commemorate historical events here in the United States.
On May 1st, 1886, the American Federation of Labor declared a national strike to demand an eight-hour workday. At the time, six-day weeks and 14 hour workdays were the norm. (Kind of sounds like the Advertising Business doesn’t it?)
In Chicago there were riots and slayings of strikers. The police tried to break up a rally in Haymarket Square, a bomb was thrown. A policeman was killed. The Police fired wildly into the crowd wounding 200 and killing four strikers and apparently a few of their fellow policemen. 8 labor leaders were put on trial with absolutely no evidence they had any connection to the bombing. Most of them were executed.
The trial enraged labor groups and protests were held around the world.
In 1889, the Socialist International declared May 1st a day of demonstrations, and since 1890 these have been held annually worldwide.
Labor leaders in America lobbied for a national holiday to recognize workers. By the 1890’s May first was officially being celebrated in several states and was called “Labor Day”
In 1893 Federal Troops, ordered by President Cleveland, violently suppressed the Pullman Strike. Grover, in a bid to restore his tarnished image, declared a national holiday in honor of workers and intentionally chose a September date to keep it months away on the calendar from the Socialist “May Day – Labor Day”
This didn’t stop May Day celebrations in the United States. The biggest one every year was held in Union Square Park, which in the 1920’s got the nickname Red Square.
During the Red Scare days of the Cold War Congress officially declared May I, “Loyalty Day”. It was an all American anti American Communist Party kind of party.
During the 1950s, the largest Loyalty Day parade in the country was here in New York City. Its job was to distract attention from the Union Sq. rallies and Communist Party march on the same day.
By the time the Vietnam War entered the picture Loyalty Day Parades petered out, but so did May Day Parades. So I guess they had done their job.
So on this May Day I exhort the workers of New York to Unite, link arms head over to Union Square and see if you can hear the long dead ghosts of Labor leaders crying out to masses. Failing that, the Farmer’s Market is open so grab yourself some nice organic produce.
The Other May Day:
Here’s the skinny on the more ancient randy celebrations of the first of May.
The merry old month of May gets its name from the Greek goddess Maia daughter of Zeus and mother of Hermes (The Romans called him Mercury – he’s the guy standing on top of Grand Central Station).
The first of May --May Day --was midway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice. Agricultural/fertility celebrations were held to mark the time.
At Greek festivals to honor Dionysus ( the god of wine and fertility) folks in togas drank wine and danced around a large phallus. The Romans would change the name from Dionysus to Bacchus and from that we get the expression “bacchanalian feast.”
Somehow this morphed into a custom in the Middle Ages where on May 1st commoners would erect a large pole (You don’t have to be Freud to get the symbolism there) attached vines or ribbons to it and the young studs and lovelies of the village would dance around the pole until they all became intertwined. (Think -- Medieval Twister©.)
There would be a character present called Robin Goodfellow (sometimes called the Green Man) who was the Lord of Misrule for this day. He would thumb his nose at authority and act as a mock minister and declare the lustful couples “officially” married and they’d head off into the green together.
Any resultant offspring from the merrymaking were called “Merry- begats”. These love children were said to have been fathered by god, a rather convenient excuse for the men folk don’t you think?
I also think it quite fitting that the political May Day is a day to question "the establishment." A bit of serendipitous synchronicity.
Eventually the festivities were banned, but as we’ve seen before folklore and tradition have a way of sneaking things back in disguise and so the character of Robin Goodfellow came back as the legend of Robin Hood, a man in green who understood the desires of common folk and would thumb his nose at repressive authority.
Robin Goodfellow had a companion; her name was the May Queen.
She was chosen from the local beauties –kind of a Medieval Home Coming Queen. The May Queen herself was a replacement for a pagan goddesses who was always associated with the festivities.
When Robin Hood replaced Robin Goodfellow – Maid Marian subbed for the pagan Goddess.
And that’s why today in England, Maid Marian the Queen of the May, mounted on a white horse is the central figure of festivities.
The Irish had their own May festival called "Bealtaine" On the eve of May 1st bonfires were lit on the hills to draw the sun back to earth. Villagers jumped over the bonfires in search of good luck or in help finding a mate.
According to Irish superstition the woman who washes her face with morning dew on May Day will be beautiful; the man who washes his hands will be skilled with knots and nets. And if you lived near water, you were supposed to make a garland and cast it into a lake or river to honor the water spirits. (It’s not too late to get a bouquet over at Union Square and chuck it into the Hudson.)
When the Romans arrived in the British Isles they brought their own traditions to the party. They already had a celebration from April 28th -May 2nd called Floralia. It was in honor of the goddess of flowers named --you guessed it --Flora. As part of the festivities, women and homes were decked out in flowers.
All of this stuff melded together. And eventually organized religion outlawed the randy stuff and made the whole fertility fest a cute little celebration where innocent children sometimes dressed in togas wearing flowers dance around a Maypole. And nowadays the closest that we come to honoring fertility in May is when we give mom a card on Mother’s Day the second Sunday in the month named for the Mother of Hermes.
Have a Merry May Day, a beautiful Bealtaine, and a festive Floralia everyone.
Medieval Twister© anyone?
Lord of Misrule