Saturday, May 3, 2014

It's May Day Again.

Thursday was the first of May, a national holiday in Greece.  It’s a day filled with traditions, some brought on by thoughts of rejoicing at the end of winter, others by memories of a day sacred to organized labor, one that most Americans know little about—but we’ll get to that later.  Anyway, I thought, “This is a perfect subject for this week’s post,” and began to write, accompanied by this nagging sense of déjà vu all over again. 

Sure enough, I plowed back through my old posts and found I’d written about May Day two years ago.  I thought to reinvent the wheel—or in this case the springtime wreath—but decided it more in keeping with the national labor strikes aspect of this day to simply do nothing but tinker with the old piece. Besides, the history behind this worldwide May Day hullabaloo has not changed. 

Did you know that May 1st celebrations go back to ancient pagan days and that virtually all northern hemisphere cultures had some sort of “spring rite” festivities?

Why of course you did.

The earliest festivals were linked to the Roman goddess of flowers (Flora), Germanic celebrations of what is now called Walpurgis Night (named after the patron saint of those suffering from rabies, it’s also known as “the witches sabbath” coming precisely six months after All Hallows Eve—interesting combination), and the Celtic Beltane (a springtime festival of optimism).

Walpurgis Night Fireworks

May 1st ends the hunker down winter mindset, and harbingers the coming joyful days of summer. 

Here on Mykonos locals take great pride in fashioning circular wreaths out of grape vines tied off with bunches of wildflowers (aloe, statice, geraniums, daises, lavender, and the like), angelica, olive, rosemary, wheat, bay leaf, and for some, whole cloves of garlic.  They’re quite beautiful and for those wreaths proudly hung on front doors which survive another Mykonian tradition—wreath heisting by neighborhood children—they’re burned on the day of the Summer Solstice (June 22nd) as the adventuresome jump over the flames three times making a wish as they do…probably not to burn off their you-know-whats in the process.   

Did you also know that May Day is International Worker’s Day?  If you live virtually anywhere outside of the U.S. you probably do.  Inside, likely not.  The U.S. has stuck to the first Monday in September as its Labor Day and Americans generally associate May 1st with a communist or socialist workers holiday, complete with grandiose military parades in such places as Russia, North Korea, and Cuba. 

May Day Demonstration London

I’d venture to say most Americans have no idea that International Worker’s Day is officially celebrated in most countries around the world not to glorify any foreign ideal or event, but to mark what occurred in Chicago, Illinois on May 4, 1888.

Permit me to lift the following description of what happened from Wikipedia’s entry, “The Haymarket Affair.”

“The Haymarket affair (also known as the Haymarket massacre or Haymarket riot) refers to the aftermath of a bombing that took place at a labor demonstration on Tuesday May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in Chicago. It began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour day. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police as they acted to disperse the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians, and the wounding of scores of others.

“In the internationally publicized legal proceedings that followed, eight anarchists were convicted of conspiracy, although the prosecution conceded none of the defendants had thrown the bomb. Seven were sentenced to death and one to a term of 15 years in prison. The death sentences of two of the defendants were commuted by Illinois governor Richard J. Oglesby to terms of life in prison, and another committed suicide in jail rather than face the gallows. The other four were hanged on November 11, 1887. In 1893, Illinois’ new governor John Peter Altgeld pardoned the remaining defendants and criticized the trial.

“The Haymarket affair is generally considered significant as the origin of international May Day observances for workers.  The site of the incident was designated a Chicago Landmark on March 25, 1992, and a public sculpture was dedicated at the site in 2004. The Haymarket Martyrs’ Monument in nearby Forest Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark on February 18, 1997.”

That ends today’s history lesson. Now go outside and enjoy the sunshine!



  1. Sunshine????
    Beltane is, as you say, the first real day of summer and those Pagan types would celebrate it by eating, drinking, ripping off their clothes and doing all sorts with anyone they pleased.
    I can only think there has been a degree of climate change since then.....