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From Flowers To Labor Rights: The Story of May Day

The door bell rang. Curious, I peeked my head out to see who could be there. The walkway was empty, but the door mat held a basket of flowers with a short note that read, “Happy May Day!”

As a child, this was a wondrous thing to see. I always felt grateful and honored that someone would think of our family when gifting their May Day flowers. As I grew, it became fun to design baskets and gift friends and neighbors with flowers and May Day treats.

Somewhere along the line, our May Day festivities faded away, and the celebration of Spring was something that arrived without note. Today, May Day is celebrated in 66 countries around the world, yet is hardly recognized where it originated (or at least used to be highly recognized), the United States.


One event in many celebrations, the May Pole, can be traced back to medieval times, though its exact origins are unknown. Winding the colorful ribbons around the May Pole was thought by historians to be a part of a fertility ritual, where the pole symbolized Male fertility, while baskets and wreaths were symbolic of female fertility. The May Pole was something that never caught on well in the US, partially due to Puritan discouragement.

The Celts recognize May Day as Beltane, thought to be one of the most important days of the year, as it divides the year in half, between the light and the dark. Great fires would be built at the festival in celebration of the return of life and fertility.

In the US in the 19th and 20th centuries, May Day was celebrated as it was in my childhood, with baskets containing flowers or treats hung or placed on/by the doors of friends and neighbors.

To some, May Day is primarily known as being International Workers Day, which came about during the Industrial Revolution, a way to call for better labor laws, as many had been dying from harsh labor conditions and long work days. Isn’t this part of why we celebrate Labor Day you may wonder? May 1st used to be Labor Day, until the Haymarket Riot cast a pall on it. The Haymarket Riot occurred in 1886 during a Labor Protest, where someone threw a bomb into the middle of the advancing police ranks. Both officers and civilians died in the chaos that day. Subsequent Presidents sought to separate Labor Day from International Workers Day and the Haymarket Riot, eventually moving Labor Day to be in September.

Do you celebrate May Day? When was the last time you gifted or received a May Day basket? How do you celebrate Spring’s arrival?

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