You may think today is May 1st and you are correct, but it is so much more. It is also Beltaine, an ancient Celtic festival which marks the end of winter and the start of summer. In some parts of Britain, there will be lots of dancing women waving antlers to ancient pagan gods of fertility. I’m told the high point of the night is the burning of a custom-built, 30-foot high Wicker Man. Participants first write their hopes for the coming year on and stuff them inside the Wicker Man. Then the pagan watchers celebrate in the grisly ritual as fire consumes the Wicker Man, signaling the beginning of summer.
Over the years, diverse groups adapted the pagan celebration to their specific cultures and beliefs. Americans celebrate in a more secular manner with maypole dancing and wearing crowns of flowers. When I think of May Day, I see brightly colored twirling ribbons and promises of warm days ahead.
But that is not the whole story. May Day is also a day of protests and riots that traces its modern roots back to a world-changing explosion in Chicago.
On Tuesday May 4, 1886, a demonstration was ending at Haymarket Square in Chicago. Then someone tossed a dynamite bomb at police as they were encouraging people to go home for the evening. What began as a peaceful rally supporting workers striking for an 8-hour work day, erupted into a full riot. It included the death of seven police officers, four civilians, and scores of wounded. History tells us that this single event, more than any other, influenced labor in Illinois, the United States, and even the world.
Since the Haymarket Riot was for worker rights, labor unions have marked May Day as International Workers’ Day. So, May Day has often been a day of protest for labor unions around the world. Some demonstrations turned violent, such as one in Turkey in 2014 and last year in Seattle. In a strange way, some of these demonstrations overlap with the more festive roots of May Day.
I don’t know what will happen today, May Day 2017, given the political climate and unrest in our country. It won’t surprise me if we see demonstrations, protests, and even violence.
So, we all have yet one more excuse to pray today. Wherever your day takes you — on the train, in your car, behind your desk, at Starbucks, in class — say a prayer for peace, understanding, and a little more faith!
“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone” Hebrews 12:14a
Oh, one more item. We all know the “Mayday! Mayday!” distress call. Well it has nothing to do with May Day. “Mayday” the distress call is an Anglicization of the French m’aidez or m’aider, meaning ‘help me.’
Nothing wrong with a little French lesson to go along with the holiday’s history!
See you in church,