May Day // Friday


I have to admit, I never heard of May Day until I started working at a private school. I did a little bit of research on the topic. It's a tradition with a long, complicated history throughout America.

May Day is a holiday that many Americans have celebrated, but relatively few can explain. Depending on your age, you might associate May 1 with dancing around a maypole in elementary school or watching tanks proceed through Moscow’s Red Square on the evening news. Surprisingly, much of the confusion that surrounds May Day in the modern United States can be traced back to the late 1800s, when America’s wealthiest classes and its working classes battled over what the holiday would mean for future generations.

The roots of May Day go all the way back to ancient world. For the Romans, the first of May stood at the heart of the Floralia, a weeklong festival to honor Flora, goddess of youth, spring, and flowers. When the Romans reached the British Isles, their Floralia festival collided with the Celtic holiday of Beltane, also held on May 1. Elements of both celebrations combined to lay the foundations for what became known as May Day—which, by the medieval period, had become a cherished holiday throughout Europe.

Every year, villagers would go “a-maying,” venturing out in the early morning to collect flowers and decorate their town for the day’s festivities. During the day, villages would hold a number of games, pageants, and dances, and many would crown a young woman “May Queen” to preside over the fun. At the heart of the festivities stood the maypole. Pulled into town by a pair of flower-adorned oxen, the pole (usually cut from a birch tree) was raised and decorated with colorful streamers that villagers could hold as they danced.

May Day might have remained an obscure holiday in the United States if not for the work of two very different groups of reformers in the late 1800s, both of whom were concerned about the welfare of America’s working classes. The first group were social reformers plucked from the nation’s wealthiest and most powerful families, a group that historian David Glassberg memorably describes as the nation’s “genteel intellectuals.”

In the late 1800s, migrants and immigrants from around the world were flocking to U.S. cities to find jobs in the nation’s booming industries; from their vantage point at the top of the social ladder, America’s genteel intellectuals looked down at these teeming masses with trepidation. Many feared that workers, exhausted as they were from factory work and the stresses of urban life, would fall victim to the cheap commercial amusements of the day—carnivals, penny arcades, and amusement parks, entertainments that (so the argument went) stimulated the body but did little to educate the mind or instill “traditional” American values.

For wealthy reformers, the solution was to give workers more opportunities for wholesome play, particularly play that was steeped in the nation’s white Anglo-Saxon past. May Day, after languishing in the background of the American psyche for centuries, stood out as an ideal candidate for a revival. The resurgence of May Day traditions began in the 1870s on women’s college campuses, where the children of wealthy families donned white outfits, danced traditional folk dances and, in many cases, performed dramatic retellings of the story of Thomas Morton and his doomed maypole. To popularize May Day among the masses, wealthy reformers also introduced the traditions of “a-maying” to American schoolchildren. Generations of students in public and private schools, many of whom came from immigrant families, were taught to gather flowers and dance around the maypole on the first of May.
Traditional maypole celebrations were a common May Day attraction in the nation’s colleges and schools, while militant protests and strikes were only pursued by socialists, communists, and the most militant unions. Viewed with hindsight, however, the elites’ victory seems far less assured. While countless Americans did (and continue to) celebrate May Day in the traditional English style, it would be quite a stretch to say that these festivities displaced any of the popular amusements that so worried genteel intellectuals. And while the significance of May Day as a labor holiday dimmed in the United States, that celebratory energy has been more than replaced by the millions of workers who continue to make the first of May International Workers’ Day. In the case of American workers, the loss of May Day did not end the struggle for better treatment. Laborers continued to strike, march, and celebrate—just on different days of the year.
— Jordan Grant, "O Say Can You See? Stories from the National Museum of American History"

I still don't know how I feel about this tradition...