What is the Significance of May Day?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

May Day, the first of May, is an important holiday all over the world, for people from communists to pagans and everyone in between. Depending on the context, it has a different significance for different individuals, but it is generally a day of celebration that involves drinking, dancing, bonfires, and other general mischief. The significance of the holiday has also changed over the centuries, with the rise of Christianity and attempts to suppress pagan religions. In some contexts, it's a celebration of summer and fertility, while in others, it commemorates the struggles in the labor movement.

For Roman Catholics, May Day is a time to praise Mary, the mother of Jesus.
For Roman Catholics, May Day is a time to praise Mary, the mother of Jesus.

As a pagan holiday, May Day is quite old. Also known as Beltane, it was designated as a holiday to promote and celebrate fertility, as well as a chance to celebrate the end of the cold winter months, as the first day of May was also the beginning of summer. Celebrations included large bonfires on which people burned offerings of flowers and food, and cattle were traditionally driven between the fires so that they would be blessed with fertility. Many humans ran between the fires for the same purpose. In many places, people danced around the May Pole, a dance traditionally performed by young women bedecked with flowers and ribbons.

With the rise of Christianity, the Church attempted to suppress these celebrations and turn the day into a more genteel holiday. In the Roman Catholic Church, May is Mary's month, an opportunity to praise the mother of Jesus. Christians distribute Mary baskets, gifts of food and flowers, to neighbors at this time. In 1955, it was also designated as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker.

Among labor activists, May Day is a very important holiday. In 1887, it was designated International Worker's Day to commemorate the mass labor protests and unrest in Chicago in 1886 known as the Haymarket Riots. These demonstrations, along with others, led to the institution of an eight hour work day, an great victory for workers in the United States. Communists and Socialists around the world commemorate the day with marches, speeches, and festivals.

In some Western nations, such as the United States, the first of May has been designated as “Loyalty Day,” to disassociate it from communist festivals. Citizens are encouraged to demonstrate their love for their country on the day and to celebrate labor on a separate occasion. The tradition of worker's protests on this day persists, and the first of May is often marked with large demonstrations in many American cities.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@chrisinbama: Whereas many people still recognize May Day, Canada and the United States do not officially recognize May Day. The government of the United States tried to erase the history by declaring May 1st as Law Day instead. They announced that Labor Day was to be the first Monday of September, a date of no particular significance.


Is May Day recognized in the United States?


@gardenturtle: Putting up a Maypole was a huge tradition. It involved taking a growing tree from the woods and bringing it to the village to mark the arrival of summer. The single women and men would dance around the Maypole holding on to ribbons until they became entwined with hopeful new loves.


I have read a little about May Day traditions but I am not exactly sure what a May pole is? Can anyone elaborate on that?

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