Today is May 1, 2017! It marks the pagan holiday of Beltane and is also synonymous with International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day, and Loyalty Day in the United States. Beltane occurs between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It had largely died out by the mid-1900s, but Celtic neopagans and Wiccans revived it as a religious holiday to celebrate summer.
The date also became associated with the labor movement in the late 1800s after violent protests at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Workers around the world now celebrate the holiday with marches and protests. However, Labor Day in the United States is the first Monday in September.
In 1921, at a time when the U.S. government was most afraid of violent working-class uprisings, the U.S. government declared May 1 “Loyalty Day.”
Learn more about the history and origins of this day that celebrates summer, working classes, and American loyalty below.
1. Beltane Is a Gaelic Tradition
Beltane is the anglicised name for the Gaelic festival that celebrates May Day. The Irish name of the festival is Lá Bealtaine, the Scottish name is Là Bealltainn, and the Manx Gaelic name, spoken on the Island of Man, is Laa Boaltinn/Boaldyn.
Beltane is one of four Gaelic seasonal festivals celebrated on the first of the months, the other most famous of which is Samhain, November 1. Samhain is one of the main contributors of traditions to the modern Halloween.
Originally, Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral season, when livestock were driven out to the summer pastures. In modern times, less agrarian observers usually participate in another mainstay of the Beltane tradition: bonfires. According to BBC, the modern Beltane Fire Festival started in 1988. They write, “During the bonfire, the Green Man is killed as god of winter and reborn as spring to consort with the May Queen.” Other groups that hold such festivals include the above pictured Glastonbury Dragons May Fayre festival.
During these festivals, the May Queen represents the personification of summer. The Green Man is a vegetative deity commonly interpreted as a symbol of rebirth.
Many ancient religions had myths and legends about the death and rebirth of gods and goddesses. Celebrations of these gods usually occurred in the springtime, such as Easter.
Hilaria was the ancient Roman religious festival celebrated on the March equinox to honor Cybele, the mother goddess, and her son/lover, Attis. Attis committed suicide by castrating himself right before his wedding to someone else. Cybele wanted to honor Attis’ life by ensuring that his corpse would never rot or decay. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Attis was fundamentally a vegetation god, and in his self-mutilation, death, and resurrection he represents the fruits of the earth, which die in winter only to rise again in the spring.”
Hilaria would later become associated with April Fools’ and is where we derive the word “hilarious” from.
Ancient gods and goddesses that took the forms of humans only to die and resurrect in the spring season include Baal, Melqart, Adonis, Tammuz, Dionysus, Ishtar, Persephone, and Bari.
Other Beltane traditions that made it into the modern May Day include dancing around the maypole and the handing out of May baskets. While not as popular as they used to be, May baskets were typically hung by children on their friends’ doors the night before May Day, according to Old Fashioned Living.
2. It Became Associated With Labor in 1886
On May 1-3, 1886, about 250,000 factory workers in Chicago took to the streets to protest long working hours with the rallying cry, “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay.” During this time, Chicago was a major industrial center where German and Bohemian immigrant workers were paid about $1.50 a day, or about $36.65 a day adjusted for inflation. These laborers worked 10-hour shifts 6-days a week, according to Working Hours of the World Unite? New International Evidence of Worktime, 1870-1913.
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions unanimously set May 1, 1886, as a national day of protest for an 8-hour work day. Although it was a peaceful protest, Chicago police fired on the crowd and killed two workers.
The next day a huge rally to protest the police brutality took place at Haymarket Square in Chicago. At just around 10:30 a.m. as a line of police advanced on the rally, someone threw a bomb at the officers, killing one and wounding 6 more. Police open fired, killing four demonstrators and injuring dozens more.
May Day became a holiday the following year to remember the victims who died while protesting for fair and humane working conditions.
3. It Became an International Holiday
Following the 1886 incident, May Day became an international holiday celebrated by workers and radicals across the world. May Day held particular significance in socialist countries like the Soviet Union and, after 1959, Cuba, who commemorated the day with large parades.
Between April and June of 1919, bombs were sent by radical anarchists to important industrial and elected officials across the country. The event is called the Red Scare of 1919–20, and was spurred by the October Revolution by the Bolsheviks in Russia. According to the Chicago Daily Tribune, at least 36 explosive packages, planned to go off around May Day, were sent to the governors of Pennsylvania, and Mississippi, congressmen and senators from Utah, North Carolina, Washington, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Alabama, as well as John D. Rockefeller and J.P Morgan Jr. Only 12 were ultimately recovered.
Many of the bombs, including the one which exploded on Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s front porch, found their targets. Palmer wasn’t killed but his neighbors, future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, barely avoided the blast.
The May Day anarchist bombings were followed a month later by more bombings in June.
All the bombings were coordinated by Luigi Galleani, an Italian anarchist active in the United States, and his followers, “Galleanists.” The bombings led to the Palmer raids where Galleani and many of his followers were arrested and deported.
4. The Events Spurred ‘Loyalty Day’ in America
In 1921, at a time when the U.S. government was most afraid of violent working-class uprisings spearheaded by foreign radicals, the U.S. government declared May 1 “Loyalty Day.” The holiday did not become an official U.S. holiday until the second red scare when Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed that May 1, 1959, would be the first official Loyalty Day.
According to the legislation:
Loyalty Day is a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.
Yesterday, President Trump reminded his followers about Loyalty Day at a 2020 campaign rally celebrating his 100th day in office in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Trump also touched on his lack of legislative achievement, where he blamed the American Constituion for its checks and balances of exectuive power, according to The Guardian. “It’s a very rough system. It’s an archaic system… It’s really a bad thing for the country,” Trump said.
5. ‘American Labor Day’ Is in September
Unlike the majority of the world which celebrates workers on May 1, the United States and Canada celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of September. Britannica writes:
In 1889 an international federation of socialist groups and trade unions designated May 1 as a day in support of workers, in commemoration of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago (1886). Five years later, U.S. Pres. Grover Cleveland, uneasy with the socialist origins of Workers’ Day, signed legislation to make Labor Day—already held in some states on the first Monday of September—the official U.S. holiday in honour of workers. Canada followed suit not long afterward.
Happy May Day, Beltane, and Labour Day!