Mayday! It’s May Day.

Happy May Day, my oddlings! Are you gathering around a May Pole or are you just now waking from a particularly heady Walpurgis Night? Or, perhaps, you are occupying the streets in protest of class injustices. All of these are appropriate celebrations of the rites of Spring.

During Pagan times, people celebrated the coming of Spring forcefully. Walpurgis Night – typically April 30th – was celebrated with bonfires, singing and dancing. There were carnivals and the drinking of mead.  In Germany, folks dressed in costume and were raucous – hoping to ward off evil spirits and phantom hounds. Walpurgis Night, you see, is six months from Halloween and witches are busy in the spring as well as the fall. The Saxons and the Celts celebrated Beltane – the day of fire – in honor of the sun god. Their celebrations began at midnight and continued into the first day of May.

As with so many pagan rituals, this celebration was combined with the legend of a saint – Saint Walburga. This abbess  of Heidenheim Monastery in Germany reportedly cured illnesses and was an all-around delightful nun. After her death, she was canonized on the 1st of May, and thus our Spring Halloween became named Walpurgis Night. This way, one could celebrate in pagan glory without the church getting too angry. (It’s always been about the loopholes, dears.)

May 1st brings a more demure celebration of spring and fertility. Young people dance around a May Pole, entwining ribbons and wearing flowers in their hair. A May King and a May Queen are usually crowned, and children leave May baskets (tiny baskets filled with sweets and flowers) on the doorsteps of their neighbors. These dances and rituals originated in agricultural societies and were thought to bring greater fertility to the fields (and the animals and humans that surrounded them). The Christian church has celebrated May Day in the Virgin Mary’s name, and, again, pagans were able to celebrate their version alongside the church’s version without breaking any laws. These days, May Day celebrations might still involve a May Pole and, naturally, loads of wild flowers and even a May Queen.

In America, the Puritans of New England forbade the celebration of May Day because they found its pagan origins intolerably licentious, so the traditions of May Day have been rather lost in “the new world”.

May Day isn’t just flowers and bonfires and mead and fertility, though. May Day is celebrated by workers around the world – recognizing their solidarity in their fight for freedom. You see, the U.S. Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions passed a law in 1884 that an eight-hour workday would be the full and legal work day for all American workers. They gave factory and business owners until May 1, 1886 to put this law into effect.

The owners refused. So on May 1, 1886, over 350,000 workers across the United States went on strike and took to the streets – demanding their eight hour work day. (Prior to this law, companies could force workers to labor much longer than eight hours.)  In Chicago, Illinois  – considered the heart of the U.S. Labor Movement – police fired into a crowd of protesting workers. This, naturally, caused an uproar across the country, and workers scheduled rallies, demonstrations, and protests to take place the next day, May 4th.

May 4th found several thousand workers gathered in Chicago’s Haymarket Square in a rally organized by the International Working Peoples’ Association (an anarchist organization) to protest the police brutality of striking workers. During a rousing speech, a bomb exploded deep within the police ranks and the police opened fire on the unarmed workers. Countless people were killed and injured and arrests were made.  It was a time of political and class upheaval and the world took notice.

May 1st has since become a day of international proletarian solidarity.  In 1890, workers across the world demonstrated and rallied to demand those eight-hour work days and better health conditions. The red flag was developed then – Marxists describe it as a symbol of the blood that the working-class has bled under the oppressions of the ruling classes.

In this context, May Day is referred to International Workers Day, and today, tens of thousands of workers across the world continue to march and protest, demanding better health conditions and fairer pay. In New York, Occupy protestors have gathered in front of financial institutions to protest economic injustice.

Mordecai and I had a small bonfire in the garden last night for Walpurgis Night and were planning on gardening all day today – though the rain has dampened our plans. Bubo was out early with the protesters on Wall Street, and is back, feathers heavy with rain and smelling suspiciously of vole and uprising. How are you commemorating May Day?

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