History of May Day

The international working class holiday known as May Day, is one of the oldest pagan traditions.

To the ancient Celts, it was a day of joy and significance. Their calendar was divided equally into winter and summer and because May Day was the first day of summer, it was time for merriment.

May day was a day of fertility and , while medieval and Tudor aristocrats went "a-Maying", the peasants cavorted around the village Maypoles.

The joyous abandon began on the eve of May 1st when young men paraded the village and fastened garlands and boughs of evergreen on the windows and doors of the houses where maidens lived. They would then go down to the woods early in the morning and cut down a tree for their pole. Then when the sun rose, the Maypole was decked with leaves, flowers and ribbons while dancing and singing went on around it.

One of the girls was appointed to fill the honoured position of May Queen and was crowned on the flower covered throne. However, when the puritans came along they frowned on May Day because they considered it far too pagan.

A petition of 1579 calling for the abolition of the May Day celebrations stated 'There is no doubt May games were apt to degenerate into orgies of wasteful eating, woeful drinking, rioting and wantonness and were the centres of attraction for idle vagabonds and all lewd fellows of the beset sort.'

As a result, Maypoles were dismantled in hundreds of villages and dancing on the green ceased until the restoration of the Merrie Monarch, Charles II. The freedom to dance again was celebrated on the first May Day after the King's return. A 130 ft Maypole was erected in the Strand. It was twice the height of ordinary poles and remained in position for half-a-century.

Nowadays, the tradition of having a Maypole and May Queen can still be seen in many village greens during the month of May. But why did the Labour movement choose May Day in 1889 as the international Labour Day?

In 1889, a congress of world socialist parties, held in Paris, voted to support the United States labour movements' demands for an eight-hour working day. When they finally succeeded in shortening the working day, the labour movement decided to choose May Day as their Labour Day holiday because the day had always been an important secular festival for working class people. Governments and labour parties sponsored parties, speeches and other celebrations to honour working people on May 1st.

Margaret Thatcher officially abolished May Day as a national holiday in Britain although this has largely been ignored and demonstrations still take place.

Reproduced from the New Shopper May 2nd 2001 - www.newsshopper.co.uk