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Why Do We Celebrate May Day?

by River Seiler on 2023-05-01T08:00:00-05:00 in U.S. History since 1877, U.S. History to 1877, World History | 0 Comments

May Day is celebrated on May 1st, but do you know why we celebrate May Day?

May Day is Beltane

According to the National Today’s "May Day" article, “May Day is one of the four ancient Celtic cross-quarter days, making it an astronomical holiday as it falls between the March equinox and June solstice."

Some other Celtic cross-quarter days include Lammas Day (August 1), Samhain (November 1), and Imbolc (February 2). Like many ancient holidays, these cross-quarter days celebrated important times in the harvest or farming season. Imbolc traditionally celebrated the start of lambing season. May Day, or Beltane, traditionally celebrated the sprouting of crops in the fields. Lammas traditionally celebrated the first grain crop – wheat, barley, oats, or sunflower. Samhain traditionally celebrated the day cattle were brought in from the pasture, and the slaughter of the winter’s supply of meat. (Information in this section comes from Catherine Boeckmann’s “What Are the Quarter Days and What Do They Mean: Ancient Celtic Calendar: Quarter Days and Cross-Quarter Days” article for the Farmer’s Almanac).

Here are some traditional Beltane celebrations you can incorporate in your May Day this year:

  1. Wash your face with morning dew May 1.
  2. Gather cuttings of flowering trees for your home.
  3. Make a basket of May Day flowers.
  4. Make a lei or garland for yourself.
  5. Walk barefoot on May Day.
  6. Decorate a bush with colorful ribbons.
  7. Get involved in beekeeping.
  8. Catch a fish.
  9. Plant turnips.
  10. Watch the Kentucky Derby.

(From Catherine Boeckmann’s “May Day 2023: What Is May Day?: Celebrate the Halfway Point to Summer on May 1” article for the Farmer’s Almanac).

May Day is International Workers’ Day

In addition to being an ancient Celtic holiday, May Day is also a labor holiday. Also known as International Workers’ Day, May Day celebrates laborers and the working class and promotes the international labor movement. In the late 1880s, there were many labor movements all around the world striking for the eight-hour workday. May 1st was chosen as International Workers’ Day to commemorate the 1886 Haymarket Affair in Chicago.

“The ruling class did not have a very active labor force connected internationally,” said Peter Linebaugh, author of The Incomplete, True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day. “The principle of national patriotism was used against the principle of working-class unity or trade union unity.” (from Emma Bowman’s “What is May Day? For the most part, the opposite of capitalism” article for NPR).

For more information about International Workers’ Day and the Haymarket Affair, check out some of the books listed below:


Thanks for reading! We hope to see you in the Library again soon!

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