The first day of May has been marked in several different ways over the centuries, from ancient pagan festivals to a celebration of socialism and workers’ rights. It is a day that holds a degree of importance for people from many different countries and backgrounds, but where did May Day customs originate from and how has the day been adopted from those of many different hues?

Here are a few interesting insights into the origins and customs of May Day.

May Day’s Roman Origins

The earliest evidence of the start of May being a time of celebration date back to Roman times. Then, Romans celebrated Floralia, a festival to honour the goddess for flowers Flora involving flowers and small animals, while there are also recordings of another Roman festival known as Maioumas, which was in honour of the gods Dionysus and Aphrodite, although this was a more raucous and bawdy affair.

How a Pagan Festival Became a Christian Feast

Celebrations to mark what was then considered the beginning of summer started cropping up among the Celts towards the end of the first millennium. The Gaelic festival of Beltane marked the end of April and the start of the summer months and is the origin of the modern Irish word for May which is Bealtaine. Beltane translates as ‘lucky fire’ and refers to the custom of using to bless cattle as they were sent out to graze on the newly lush pastures. The celebrations evolved into people jumping over fire which was considered good luck.

As with many notable pagan dates in the calendar, it wasn’t long before Christians attached their own feast days to them and May Day, and the whole month for that matter, was adopted as a time for Roman Catholics to time show their devotion to the Virgin Mary. 

This involved crown statues of Mary with flowers and May festivals, including dancing around the maypole and conducting May processions began to become popular.

May Day - a Day for the Workers

May Day also holds significant symbolism for left-wing activists and trade unionists. This may lead some to believe that this form of May celebration has its roots in the old Soviet Union, but in fact, it is in the United States where the first National Workers’ Day was established. 

Initially, it was set up to commemorate an incident in Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886. Workers were holding a general strike on May 1 and a peaceful rally, but clashes between crowds and police in the following days lead to the deaths of civilians and policemen.

As socialism swept through much of Europe in the early part of the 20th century, trade unions agreed that the first day in May would be designated as the International Day of the Workers.

It took on added significance in strict communist regimes throughout the 20th century such as the Soviet Union, Cuba and North Korea where large military parades were held.

It is still marked today by the trade union movement in countries around the world and used as a rallying call for better working conditions. 

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