Monday, May 01, 2006

The Origins and Traditions of May Day

I wrote the Origins and Traditions of Mayday in 1997. Yes way back then, it was one of my first web postings. It was used to launch MayDay on the Web and the Edmonton May Week celebrations that have continued since.

Here it is again and the original web page is here.

An Australian labour historian used it as the basis for his article on May Day which expands on my points.


By Eugene W. Plawiuk

The international working class holiday; Mayday,
originated in pagan Europe. It was a festive holy day
celebrating the first spring planting. The ancient
Celts and Saxons celebrated May 1st as Beltane or the
day of fire. Bel was the Celtic god of the sun.

The Saxons began their May day celebrations on the eve
of May, April 30. It was an evening of games and
feasting celebrating the end of winter and the return
of the sun and fertility of the soil. Torch bearing
peasants and villager would wind their way up paths to
the top of tall hills or mountain crags and then
ignite wooden wheels which they would roll down into
the fields

The May eve celebrations were eventually outlawed by
the Catholic church, but were still celebrated by
peasants until the late 1700's. While good church
going folk would shy away from joining in the
celebrations, those less afraid of papal authority
would don animal masks and various costumes, not
unlike our modern Halloween. The revelers, lead by the
Goddess of the Hunt; Diana (sometimes played by a
pagan-priest in women's clothing) and the Horned God;
Herne, would travel up the hill shouting, chanting and
singing, while blowing hunting horns. This night
became known in Europe as Walpurgisnacht, or night of
the witches

The Celtic tradition of Mayday in the British isles
continued to be celebrated through-out the middle ages
by rural and village folk. Here the traditions were
similar with a goddess and god of the hunt.

As European peasants moved away from hunting gathering
societies their gods and goddesses changed to reflect
a more agrarian society. Thus Diana and Herne came to
be seen by medieval villagers as fertility deities of
the crops and fields. Diana became the Queen of the
May and Herne became Robin Goodfellow (a predecessor
of Robin Hood) or the Green Man.

The Queen of the May reflected the life of the fields
and Robin reflected the hunting traditions of the
woods. The rites of mayday were part and parcel of
pagan celebrations of the seasons. Many of these pagan
rites were later absorbed by the Christian church in
order to win over converts from the 'Old Religion'.

Mayday celebrations in Europe varied according to
locality, however they were immensely popular with
artisans and villagers until the 19th Century. The
Christian church could not eliminate many of the
traditional feast and holy days of the Old Religion so
they were transformed into Saint days.

During the middle ages the various trade guilds
celebrated feast days for the patron saints of their
craft. The shoemakers guild honored St. Crispin, the
tailors guild celebrated Adam and Eve. As late as the
18th century various trade societies and early
craft-unions would enter floats in local parades still
depicting Adam and Eve being clothed by the Tailors
and St. Crispin blessing the shoemaker.

The two most popular feast days for Medieval craft
guilds were the Feast of St. John, or the Summer
Solstice and Mayday. Mayday was a raucous and fun
time, electing a queen of the May from the eligible
young women of the village, to rule the crops until
harbest. Our tradition of beauty pagents may have
evolved , albeit in a very bastardized form, from the
May Queen.

Besides the selection of the May Queen was the raising
of the phallic Maypole, around which the young single
men and women of the village would dance holding on to
the ribbons until they became entwined, with their (
hoped for) new love.

And of course there was Robin Goodfellow, or the Green
Man who was the Lord of Misrule for this day. Mayday
was a celebration of the common people, and Robin
would be the King/Priest/Fool for a day. Priests and
Lords were the butt of many jokes, and the Green Man
and his supporters; mummers would make jokes and poke
fun of the local authorities. This tradition of satire
is still conducted today in Newfoundland, with the
Christmas Mummery.

The church and state did not take kindly to these
celebrations, especially during times of popular
rebellion. Mayday and the Maypole were outlawed in the
1600's. Yet the tradition still carried on in many
rural areas of England. The trade societies still
celebrated Mayday until the 18th Century.

As trade societies evolved from guilds, to friendly
societies and eventually into unions, the craft
traditions remained strong into the early 19th
century. In North America Dominion Day celebrations in
Canada and July 4th celebrations in the United States
would be celebrated by tradesmen still decorating
floats depicting their ancient saints such as St.

Our modern celebration of Mayday as a working class
holiday evolved from the struggle for the eight hour
day in 1886. May 1, 1886 saw national strikes in the
United States and Canada for an eight hour day called
by the Knights of Labour. In Chicago police attacked
striking workers killing six.
The next day at a demonstration in Haymarket Square to
protest the police brutality a bomb exploded in the
middle of a crowd of police killing eight of them. The
police arrested eight anarchist trade unionists
claiming they threw the bombs. To this day the subject
is still one of controversy. The question remains
whether the bomb was thrown by the workers at the
police or whether one of the police's own agent
provocateurs dropped it in their haste to retreat from
charging workers.

In what was to become one of the most infamous show
trials in America in the 19th century, but certainly
not to be the last of such trials against radical
workers, the State of Illinois tried the anarchist
workingmen for fighting for their rights as much as
being the actual bomb throwers. Whether the anarchist
workers were guilty or innocent was irrelevant. They
were agitators, fomenting revolution and stirring up
the working class, and they had to be taught a lesson.

Albert Parsons, August Spies, George Engle and Adolph
Fischer were found guilty and executed by the State of

In Paris in 1889 the International Working Men's
Association (the First International) declared May 1st
an international working class holiday in
commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs. The red flag
became the symbol of the blood of working class
martyrs in their battle for workers rights.

Mayday, which had been banned for being a holiday of
the common people, had been reclaimed once again for
the common people.

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berlynn said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you! So many lefties forget or don't know the pagan roots of May Day. Good to see that I'm not the only lefty that knows it.

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