May Day is many things to many people. Etymologically, it is a homophone for the international call for help. It is a corruption of the French imperative “M’aidez” meaning “Help me!” As a holiday it is claimed by many. It is known in the pagan world as Beltane, a fertility celebration, one of the four high holidays in the pagan calendar, Samhain on October 31 is another. Beltane is the day of fire commemorating Bel or Belenos, the Celtic sun god. Indeed, in the modern Irish language, Bealtaine is the name for the month of May. The early Anglo-Saxons began their celebration on the eve before, feasting the end of winter and the first planting. It was a time of revelry and abandon — note the song from the musical Camelot “It’s May, it’s May, the lusty month of May” — with the selection of a May Queen and the ribbons of the Maypole. But this day’s celebration of the revival of vegetation goes back to the Roman practice of visiting the grotto of Egena. The people of ancient Rome honored Flora, the goddess of flowers and springtime.
In 1886 it was co-opted as an international workers day to celebrate the 8-hour workday movement, following national strikes in the US and Canada. Later, the French declared May 1 the International Working Men’s Association holiday in 1889. Some countries consider May Day a bank holiday. This “Labor Day” is on one of the non-holy days in the calendar.
Occasionally, May 1st also marks the National Day of Prayer in the U.S. This day of non-sectarian prayer is observed on different days usually around the beginning of May, but goes back to 1775 when the first day of prayer was declared when the Continental Congress “designated a time for prayer in forming a new nation.” President Lincoln proclaimed a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in 1863. In 1952, a joint resolution by Congress, signed by President Truman, declared an annual, national day of prayer. In 1988, the law was amended and signed by President Reagan, permanently setting the day as the first Thursday of every May.
A pagan festival, a labor day, or a day of prayer. May Day is many things to many people.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian