In many countries, the first of May, or May Day, is associated with a celebration for workers. Celebration may not be the best word to describe it. For centuries workers from all around the world have struggled to make a living: terrible working conditions, extremely poor pay, long hours and, especially, horrible bosses.

Over time there have been many upheavals, revolts, and riots protesting against this situation, which have generally ended with severe reprimanding by the authorities, thus protecting the status quo that benefitted those with the upper hand. Occasionally they may have resulted in slightly better conditions for the workers, but these cases of philanthropy sadly were few and far between.
With the progress of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the concentration of workers grew considerably and so they were able to be more organised in their efforts. So, it is at the end of the century, specifically on the 1st of May 1886, when factory workers in Chicago went on strike and marched through the streets of the city demanding an 8-hour working day: 8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours sleep was the slogan. After all, they were only asking for equality to federal and office workers. The demonstration escalated into fighting and general violence, and the authorities retaliated strongly sentencing five of the leaders to death and sending another three to jail.

So this is the reason that Workers’ Day is celebrated precisely on the 1st of May in most parts of the world. Workers, in many cases led by political parties and trade unions, get together in remembrance and solidarity, marching and chanting through the main streets of cities worldwide, celebrating what has been achieved and demanding improvement where needed.

May Day in the UK is a totally different matter. It is about halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, roughly the time when the weather starts to get a bit better. We say goodbye to our wet and gloomy winter and welcome warm and sunny days (in theory!). This is cause for celebration, as spring is reborn. In many towns a pole is erected on a common, the Maypole, and locals dance around it drawing circles and holding colourful ribbons that wind around the pole. In some cases, there may be the crowning of a May Queen; a young girl dressed gaily and with wild flowers entwined in her hair. In others, groups of Morris dancers parade down the streets.

This festival may go as far back as the Roman Floralia festival where people would wear bright and colourful clothes and pay tribute to Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. As you may have guessed, flowers and their beautiful colours are the general theme here.

Although initially a pagan festival, the celebrations in May have permeated even into Catholicism, as May is the month of Our Blessed Virgin Mary, and her figure is tended to, decorated with flowers and venerated in all Catholic churches.

So, two very different reasons for celebration, both as valid as each other, are celebrated on the same day.

On another note, May Day, the international call for help, has nothing to do with either: it is an anglicised form of the French m’aidez (help me!).

Danny Rae

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