Also called Workers’ Day or International Workers’ Day, May Day celebrates the wins of workers and the labour movements across a lot of countries on May 1. Labor Day, commemorated in the United States and Canada, serves the same purpose on the first Monday of September.
What does that day mean to the Irish and what is Beltaine?
MAY DAY : A DAY TO HONOUR THE WORKERS
May Day is celebrated on May 1 and has a long-lasting and diverse history. Most of the events or festivities that took place on this day marked the transition between the seasons, from winter to spring in the Northern Hemisphere. A meaning that changed as we reached the 19th century, as an International Workers’ Day grew out of the labour movement.
During the Industrial Revolution, the poor and working classes struggled with pollution, bad housing conditions and dangerous work in the new factories. On 1 May 1886, more than 300,000 workers, unionists, reformers, socialists, anarchists (with 40,000 in Chicago alone) walked out of their jobs across the United States. On the same day, The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions proclaimed “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1, 1886.” In the following days, more workers joined and the number of strikers grew to almost 100,000. The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions demanded an eight-hour workday.
Eventually, the international federation of socialist groups and trade unions chose May 1 as the day to commemorate the Haymarket Riot in Chicago held in 1886.
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BELTAINE, THE ORIGINS OF MAY DAY IN IRELAND
Traditionally in the Celtic religions, May Day is considered to be the most important day of the year. This spring festival commemorates fertility and the blossoming of flowers and fruit. In the Irish language, this day is called Lá Bealtaine.
May Day symbolises the division of the year in half. It goes back to the Romanian invasion of the British Isles. The Romans brought their five-day celebration known as Floralia, dedicated to the worship of the goddess of flowers, Flora. The festivities took place from April 20 to May 2 and eventually the rituals were combined with Beltaine.
THE TRADITIONS OF MAY DAY IN IRELAND
THE MAY BUSH
The May Bush was a decorated bush, often a hawthorn. In the countryside, it could be seen in front of the house. In towns, it was set up in a public place. Traditionally, it was carried out by a group of grown-ups and later on the children were the ones designated for this ritual.
It was a strong tradition in Leinster and the Midlands, to Galway, in Donegal and in Ulster. Usually, ribbons, cloth streamers and tinsel were used to garnish the bush. Sometimes the eggshells that were painted for Easter Sunday were used as well.
At times, public bushes were set on fire at the end of the day. The bush was considered to bring luck to the house or the community.
May Poles is another tradition that communities used to celebrate summer.
Traditionally, big trees were used but they were to be replaced by tall poles, set up in the town centre. The poles were decorated with flowers and ribbons. People could also dance around the pole. Each person holds one or more ribbons during the dancing. After the dances are completed, the ribbons are arranged to make a decorative pattern on the pole. The May Day dances traditionally signified the beginning of the courting season for young people.
May Flowers were picked on the evening before May Day. The flowers were sometimes put on the doorsteps or on windowsills. They were a symbol of luck to the house and protection from mystical forces. There was a strongly held belief that these were particularly active around the quarterly days. It was believed that the fairies could not enter the home as they could not pass such sweet smelling flowers.
Bealtaine is an Irish word that means ‘bright fire’. The Beltaine was commemorated with bonfires, lit up on all the major hills in the country. One tradition of the time involved herding cows through two big bonfires, to cleanse the herd and bring good luck.
The Month of May has been linked to the Blessed Virgin Mary since The Middle Ages in Ireland. Therefore, much of the traditions associated with May have been included into the Marian processions in the country.
Grown-ups and kids assembled flowers into a crown for Our Lady in town processions. Flowers were also used to adorn altars or grottoes. A tradition still common nowadays is to decorate a home altar in the kitchen or outside in the barnyard. Sometimes the flowers picked for this altar were used to create crosses. The altars were not withdrawn until the end of the month of May.
HOW IS MAY DAY CELEBRATED IN IRELAND TODAY?
Today, May Day is an official holiday in 66 countries and is celebrated in many other countries.
Although before there were small local and family bonfires to bring good luck, the tradition of larger communal fires survived especially in the cities like in Limerick or Belfast. In the west, the bonfire night was most celebrated on St. John’s Eve and elsewhere, Halloween was the night for fires.
In Ireland, the custom of erecting a May bush still survives as an individual household tradition, particularly in the Midlands.
One of the main traditions in Ireland is the lighting of the Bealtaine Fire on the Hill of Uisneach. This year, the event will take place on May 6.