Mayday, Mayday! Why Don’t Americans Celebrate May Day?

You’d think a country that gave new meaning to an ageless rite of spring celebration would take the time to actually celebrate it. The closest we get is letting kids deliver baskets of flowers and candy to friends.

May 1 has been observed worldwide for millennia. Celts thought it the most important day of the year. When the Romans arrived in Britain, they extended the celebration from one to four days. During medieval times villagers selected the most handsome tree to use as a maypole. Once erected they adorned it with flower wreaths and streamers and surrounded it with flower baskets, then danced around it. Historians believe the tradition originated as part of a fertility right. Maypole dancing never caught on in the New World; the Puritans sternly discouraged such symbolic observances.

Americans originated a new reason to celebrate May Day: increased worker rights. The Industrial Revolution brought long hours and poor working conditions for factory workers, resulting in death for thousands of men, women and children. In 1884 union organizers at their national convention proclaimed, “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from May 1, 1886.” On that date hundreds of thousands of workers walked off their jobs. Initially, protests were peaceful, but by May 3 a Chicago crowd clashed with police, resulting in several deaths. A rally the next day in the city’s Haymarket Square became violent when a bomb killed several people. By August eight “anarchists” (scapegoats, really) had been convicted in a controversial trial; all but one received the death sentence. Meanwhile, European labor parties grew sympathetic, and a London demonstration to  honor the “Haymarket Martyrs” on May 1, 1890 drew over 300,000. Workers’ rights were eventually embraced by governments worldwide. Today,  May 1 is an official holiday in 66 countries and unofficially celebrated in many others.

Although not on this year’s official May Day, you can join revelers at Wheat Ridge’s Historical Park (4610 Robb St.) for the annual May Festival, Saturday, May 13 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Try maypole dancing at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., or watch your kids learn how to weave colorful ribbons around the 15-foot pole. In between dances, play other old-timey games, like croquet and horse shoes.

You can also tour the five park museums, enjoy a lemonade, then “set a spell” and enjoy live music by the Golden Strings, or mosey over for a peek at the antique cars. Most of all, relax, learn, enjoy!

As for the international distress call of “Mayday, mayday!”, curiously, it’s not at all related to May 1. Invented in 1923, it’s close to the French phrase m’aider, a short version of the phrase “come and help me.”

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