Since the oldest olden days, winter-weary people have gloried when the weather warms and the cold earth comes back to life. Some of their ancient festivals still happen every spring, such as Sham el Nissim, in Egypt. In India, on Holi, dancing Hindus still shower one another with colors; and Iranians still fix a special supper at Norooz, as did their ancient Persian ancestors.
When the Roman armies invaded ancient Britain, in 55 B.C.E. they brought along their spring holy day, Floralia, when they gathered bouquets of flowers for their goddess, Flora. The Celts, who’d been living in Britain for years, celebrated the earth mother’s reawakening with dances and bonfires at Beltane, around the end of April. Over the years, the holidays blended into May Day, a time for giving gifts of flowers and dancing about a Maypole, strung with ribbons.
Then, in the 1880s, May Day celebrations changed. It was like this: For decades, factory owners had been making their employees work anywhere from 10 to 16 hours a day, six days a week (even children!), often in unsafe, nasty conditions. The workers were sick of it! They organized themselves into labor unions. At a Chicago gathering, in 1884, they started a worldwide movement for an 8-hour workday. With a huge demonstration in the city, on May 1, 1886, May Day came to be the first Labor Day, a day of parades. It’s still celebrated as International Workers’ Day in many countries.
But one more thing happened, in 1923. Because ‘May Day’ sounds like the French phrase, ‘m’aidez’ or ‘help me,’ a London radioman turned it into an international distress call. So if you hear “Mayday! Mayday!” on your radio, no one’s wishing you ‘Happy Spring!’ Someone’s in trouble! And once he or she is saved, I’ll bet he or she would like to have some pretty flowers.
Cheryl Harness is the author and illustrator of Remember the Ladies: 100 Great American Women. One of the 100 Ladies is the great and heroic labor union activist "Mother" Mary Harris Jones. She was born on May Day, 1830. Click here to find out more about about Mary, and about a lot of other great Americans.
On Monday Roxie Munro is going to tell you how a Chicago manicurist became the first black female to earn a pilot's license.