The start of May is celebrated in many countries but for different reasons. May Festival Celebrations are undoubtedly ancient. In Germanic countries we have Walpurgis nacht, a night of witches, costumes, dancing, and bonfires. These festival celebrations can be traced back to at least the eight century. Even older, Beltane is the Gaelic name for May Day rituals that signified the start of summer in Ireland and Scotland. In England, May Day is when rural villages celebrate springtime fertility with traditional village fetes and rituals such as the maypole, around which dancers circle with ribbons. There are some quaint and perhaps even eccentric traditions. In Rochester Kent they hold a Sweeps Festival which is the largest gathering of traditional Morris dancing groups (or sides as they are known) in the world. It’s called the Sweeps festival because chimney sweeps used to parade through the streets on one of the few days they were allowed to take off. In Padstow Cornwall they celebrate with ‘Obby ‘Oss Day, whilst in Oxford it was traditional to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell. There is also the theory that Mayfair in London was so named because of its reputation for having a particularly boisterous May fair.
In the late 19th century, May Day Festival Celebrations were high jacked for what became known as International Workers’ Day. During the capitalist boom of the 1800s, ordinary workers were desperately poor and had few rights. Some formed Trade Unions from which Socialist parties formed, while others were attracted by the new political ideals of Marxists and Anarchists. There was much exchange of ideas between these groups who believed that acting together in solidarity would give them greater political power. One of the demands that united them was a control on the working hours expected of workers. At its national convention in Chicago, held in 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions (which later became the American Federation of Labour), proclaimed that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” On that day more than 300,000 workers across the United States walked off their jobs in the first national May Day celebration in US history. May Day is now an official holiday in over 60 countries and unofficially celebrated in many more.