May Day and its Many Masks


May Day and its many masks. 

What’s in a day? Today is May Day, which holds pointed significance for Pagans and Labor activists alike. (Yep, you read that right.) Throughout history, this storied day is marked by fire, flowers, witches, and riots. Let's peel off some of its masks, shall we?


First, (speaking chronologically) May Day is for the ancient spring festival of the Northern hemisphere. Ancient Romans marked the occasion over two millennia ago with the Floralia, or Festival of Flora. A goddess of flowers, vegetation, and fertility, Flora received sacrifices in a sacred grove and Floralia was celebrated by dancing, gathering flowers, and wearing colorful clothes. [via]

May 1 is also Beltane (a fire festival of pagan Celtic origins), and the German Walpurgis Night, when witches are said to roam... but also when the Saint Walpurga (or Walburga) who was canonized in 870.[via] The earliest representation of her, in the early 11th-century Hitda Codex (fancy name for an important book), depicts her holding stylized stalks of grain. This grain attribute has been interpreted as an occasion where a Christian saint (Walpurga) came to represent the older pagan image for The Grain Mother. Some farmers fashioned her replica in corn dolls at harvest time. Since one of her symbols is a bundle of grain, she enters the cannon with goddesses like Ceres and Demeter, who are associated closely with both planting and harvest rituals. [via]

There are many regional variations including that on April 30th is pálení čarodějnic, or “burning of the witches" in the Czech Repulblic. Large bonfires are built and burnt in the evening, often on top of hills. The sudden black dense smoke formations are cheered as "a witch flying away.” An effigy of a witch is sometimes held up and thrown into the bonfire. Around midnight, it is time to go search for a cherry tree in blossom. Apparently young ladies should be kissed past midnight (and during the following day, May 1) under a cherry tree. This ensures "will not dry up" for an entire year. [via]


So if all that wasn’t strange enough, the second holiday of significance today is totally different. May 1 is also International Workers' Day, chosen to commemorate “the Haymarket Affair”—or as I grew up calling it, the Haymarket Riot—which happened in Chicago on May 4, 1886. A great quick video synopsis of the events and significance is here.

During this, workers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company Plant (AKA the McCormick Reaper Plant) where police killed workers at a labor demonstration and then a peaceful rally began in support of workers striking for an eight-hour day and in reaction to the police killings.

This whole affair happened at the factory founded by Cyrus Hall McCormick, who was an American inventor and businessman who founded the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company. Interestingly, McCormick himself had died almost exactly two years earlier, and the whole Haymarket unrest was in large part due to change in leadership to his son, who is noted as being “incompetent” in relation to organized labor.

What Cyrus McCormick had patented was a mechanical reapers. These machines substantially changed agriculture from starting in the 1830s and through the 1880s, when the riots happened. These evolved into machines that collected and bound the sheaves of grain with wire or twine.

One person connected to the Riot was August Vincent Theodore Spies. (What a good name, right?) He was an American upholsterer, radical labor activist, and newspaper editor. Spies is remembered as one of the anarchists in Chicago who were found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder following a bomb attack on police in an event remembered as the Haymarket affair. Spies was one of four who were executed in the aftermath of this event.As he faced his demise on the gallows, Spies shouted, "The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today." [via]

So from grain saints to hay market riots, this holiday wears many masks. How do you celebrate May Day?

Liz PearComment