The Holiday You’ve Never Heard Of


There is a holiday coming up in May, but it is not Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, or Memorial Day. While little-known in the United States, this internationally recognized celebration has its roots in ancient pagan rituals, the fight for an 8-hour workday, and a confrontation that resulted in the death of almost 20 people.

Flowers and a Bomb

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The holiday in question, May Day, was first seen as a European festival called Floralia, originating during the time of the Roman Republic; as the name suggests, the festival celebrated the Roman goddess of flowers, Flora. Participants would partake in competitive games while devoting sacrifices of crops and livestock to the deity. With hundreds of variations all over Europe and beyond, the festival has been adapted to fit many cultures since its inception. Floralia lives on through these evolutions as well as the neopagans and Wiccans that observe Beltane, a holiday that marks the beginning of Summer.

The poetic and mystical pagan holiday is heavily contrasted with its namesake May Day, also known as International Workers’ Day. While they both take place on the same day, the first of May and they’re called the same thing, that is where the similarities between the two end. The day was chosen to commemorate the Haymarket Affair, to condense a long story, over 30,000 workers in Chicago were on strike to lower their working time to eight hours a day. As Reverend Samuel Fielden, a local labor leader, was finishing his speech to a peaceful crowd, police started to march toward the workers, ordering them to disperse despite no wrongdoing up to that point. That’s when someone, assumed but not confirmed to be one of the demonstrators, threw a homemade bomb into the path of the advancing police officers, killing seven.

In the moments immediately following the explosion, gunfire was exchanged between the opposing sides, leading to the death of up to eight unarmed workers. It was over in no more than five minutes, seventy citizens and sixty cops had been wounded, though according to the book The Haymarket Tragedy by historian Paul Avrich, an anonymous officer told the Chicago Tribune, “It was every man for himself, and while some got two or three squares away, the rest emptied their revolvers, mainly into each other.”

Aftermath

In the wake of the incident, police led raids against all union-affiliated establishments, reportedly ransacking them in retaliation. Many leaders of the movement for an 8-hour workday were arrested in Chicago, seven of which were sentenced to death under a biased jury and judge. Four, including one of the speakers at the protest, were hanged, one committed suicide before he could be executed, and the other two’s sentences were lessened to life in prison. It was these events that inspired the Second International, an organization comprised of many socialist and labor-oriented parties from twenty countries, to commemorate May 1 as an international holiday to celebrate workers everywhere.

By this point, you may be wondering why the United States celebrates its workers on the first Monday of September with Labor Day instead of on the first of May along with the vast majority of the world, considering that the event that inspired the holiday took place here. Like many other questions relating to our history, the answer is the enduring American fear of workers gaining power, socialism, and communism, commonly known as the Red Scare.

In 1894 over 250,000 people all over the country were boycotting Pullman railway cars over wage cuts and the wrongful death of a worker. In response, President Cleveland ordered the Army to suppress the strikers in Chicago, where the boycott originated. This suppression and the ensuing riots would cause the death of over thirty people in the city and forty more elsewhere. The whole country was rightfully outraged at the level of brutality Cleveland had displayed; he knew something had to be done to calm tensions among the working-class population. It was from this necessity that Labor Day was born. 

However, the President didn’t want to further embolden the growing socialist movement in the United States by officially recognizing May Day, so he chose the first Monday of September to be a “federal holiday in honor of the workingman.” This sentiment that the government must “battle” socialism by suppressing all forms of worker solidarity would only grow more common in the years following.

In 1921 “Americanization Day,” deliberately also held on May 1, gained popularity in an attempt to offset the expanding communist influence in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, which took place a mere four years earlier. Later in 1949, the name was changed to “Loyalty Day,” nine years later, Congress made it an official holiday in the United States. Declaring that “Loyalty Day is a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American Freedom.” Every year since then, the sitting president of the time has recognized the day, while not one has mentioned May Day.

Who Cares?

While the events of the Haymarket Affair are now over a century in the past, the disregard for workers’ rights is still ever-present in American society. That’s why, after decades of suppression, the labor movement is gaining steam once more. This April, workers in New York voted to form the first Amazon union, one of the most significant wins for organized labor in recent memory. This was after Amazon led a ruthless anti-union campaign, including racist tirades against Chris Smalls, the president of the Amazon Labor Union, or ALU. You can find more information about their struggle in this video:

So this May Day, stand in solidarity with your co-workers or people you know that work, and remember, united we bargain, divided we beg.