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The Two Meanings of May Day

By Janes Fusco

For most people living in the northern hemisphere, May 1 is known for ushering in the spring season, celebrated with brightly colored twirling ribbons draped around a maypole, baskets of fresh flowers in bloom, outdoor celebrations.

The earliest of such celebrations can be traced back to pre-Christian times with the Floralia, or the Festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and with the Walpurgis Night celebrations in the Germanic countries when Christianity was being introduced.

A popular custom that faded in popularity in the latter part of the 20th century was the exchange of May baskets, which were small baskets filled with flowers and sweet treats that were left anonymously on a neighbor’s doorstep.

Some countries recognize International Workers Day, also known as Labour Day, on May 1, as a national public celebration of the working class, and is marked by speechmaking, parades, bombs, and conscientious violence.

This date was chosen by Second National, the pan-national organization of socialist and communist political parties to commemorate the Haymarket Affair that occurred in May 1886 in Chicago, when about 200,000 U.S. workers from several cities engineered a nationwide strike in support of an eight-hour workday. The protest became violent, as did what was intended to be a peaceful meeting at Haymarket Square.

Here is how Time magazine described the riot in 1938:

“A few minutes after ten o’clock on the night of May 4, 1886, a storm began to blow up in Chicago. As the first drops of rain fell, a crowd in Haymarket Square, in the packing house district, began to break up. At eight o’clock there had been 3,000 persons on hand, listening to anarchists denounce the brutality of the police and demand the eight-hour day, but by ten there were only a few hundred. The mayor, who had waited around in expectation of trouble, went home, and went to bed. The last speaker was finishing his talk when a delegation of 180 policemen marched from the station a block away to break up what remained of the meeting. They stopped a short distance from the speaker’s wagon. As a captain ordered the meeting to disperse, and the speaker cried out that it was a peaceable gathering, a bomb exploded in the police ranks. It wounded 67 policemen, of whom seven died. The police opened fire, killing several men and wounding 200, and the Haymarket Tragedy became a part of U. S. history.”

This international holiday held particular contempt in the U.S. especially during the anti-communist movement of The Cold War. President Eisenhower signed a resolution in 1958 that named May 1 as Loyalty Day to avoid any deference to International Workers Day, and declared it as, “a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States of America and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.”

How does all of this history relate to the “Mayday! Mayday!” distress call? It doesn’t. The Mayday distress call comes from the French phrase, “M’aidez”, which means, “Help me!”