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The Celts of the British Isles believed May 1 to be the most important day of the year, when the festival of Beltane was held.
This May Day festival was thought to divide the year in half, between the light and the dark. Symbolic fire was one of the main rituals of the festival, helping to celebrate the return of life and fertility to the world.
When the Romans took over the British Isles, they brought with them their five-day celebration known as Floralia, devoted to the worship of the goddess of flowers, Flora. Taking place between April 20 and May 2, the rituals of this celebration were eventually combined with Beltane.
Another popular tradition of May Day involves the maypole. While the exact origins of the maypole remain unknown, the annual traditions surrounding it can be traced back to medieval times, and some are still celebrated today.
Villagers would enter the woods to find a maypole that was set up for the day in small towns (or sometimes permanently in larger cities). The day’s festivities involved merriment, as people would dance around the pole clad with colorful streamers and ribbons.
Historians believe the first maypole dance originated as part of a fertility ritual, where the pole symbolized male fertility and baskets and wreaths symbolized female fertility.
The maypole never really took root in America, where May Day celebrations were discouraged by the Puritans. But other forms of celebrations did find their way to the New World.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, May Basket Day was celebrated across the country, where baskets were created with flowers, candies and other treats and hung on the doors of friends, neighbors and loved ones on May 1.
International Workers’ Day
The connection between May Day and labor rights began in the United States. During the 19th century, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, thousands of men, women and children were dying every year from poor working conditions and long hours.
In an attempt to end these inhumane conditions, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (which would later become the American Federation of Labor, or AFL) held a convention in Chicago in 1884. The FOTLU proclaimed “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”