May Day

May Day

May Day, or 1 May, has been celebrated as a traditional festival across Europe for hundreds of years. The day was significant as an ancient celebration (a Celtic cross-quarter day) of the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Like Midsummer, May Day was connected to the agricultural year. The festival celebrated new life, fertility, and all associated with this. In Scotland and Ireland, May Day was celebrated as Beltane, or Day of Fire. 

Since a questionable rediscovery of folk traditions in the 1890s, English ancestors may have celebrated the day by attending a May Day festival, which possibly featured Morris dancing, a maypole, and a parade headed by a May Queen. Attendees would ‘bring in the May’ by crowning the May Queen with flowers and green branches formed into garlands. Many of these traditions continue to this day. In 2022 the bank holiday falls on Monday 2 May.

Illustrated London News, 9 September 1922, Page 8

This connects to the current incarnation of 1 May as International Workers’ Day and a holiday for workers across sixty-six countries. This has been commemorated since 1889, remembering the struggle for an eight-hour working day and the Haymarket Incident in Chicago when a peaceful protest on 4 May 1886 was disrupted by a dynamite bomb. 

Leading up to the Haymarket Incident in 1886, masses of workers had taken the streets of Chicago and other US cities campaigning for fair working conditions. At the time, many worked sixteen-hour days in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. On 1 May 1886, three days before the events in Chicago, 350,000 workers took part in a strike across the USA demanding the adoption of a standard eight-hour workday. Strikes took place in Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Cincinnati.

As a result of the violence and loss of life on 4 May 1886, seven union leaders were convicted of conspiracy. Of these, four were later executed. However, the Haymarket Incident led to an improvement in labour relations in the USA and the eight hour day was adopted in the printing, construction and railway industries in the early 1900s, becoming law across the US in 1937.

"A Garland for May Day 1895" woodcut by Walter Crane (15 August 1845 – 14 March 1915), an English artist and book illustrator

Artists and political activists like Walter Crane were one of many who explored the crossover between the natural world and campaigns for equal rights and socialism. He contributed weekly cartoons to the Socialist papers Justice, Commonweal and The Clarion. He also controversially supported the four anarchists executed for their alleged role in the Haymarket Incident. He was compelled to write to the press explaining that he did not support the use of explosives but that he felt those executed were innocent of the crimes charged.

May Elizabeth Day was baptised on 1 May 1901 at St Faith’s Church, Wandsworth in southwest London. Her father, George Thomas Day, was a labourer. (Ancestry.co.uk; London Metropolitan Archives)

Intriguingly, almost every year between 1867 and 1931, a child has been born in England or Wales and named “May Day”. It is unclear whether this was a deliberate association with the traditional festival or the workers’ commemoration. Some of the children could have been born on 1 May, but as not all were registered in the June quarter, this cannot be the only explanation. Perhaps some of the parents were unaware of the significance and simply liked the name.

FreeBMD entries for children registered with the name "May Day"

If you have a May Day in your family, please do let us know more via email or our social media pages on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram

Surprisingly, May Day has nothing to do with the cry for help, “May day!”, which originates from a pronunciation of French m'aider, from venez m'aider ‘come and help me’. This was the idea of Frederick Mockford, who was a senior radio officer at Croydon Airport in London. 

Anyone needing help with their genealogy, need not cry May day! Instead, all are welcome to call our telephone advice line. This is open every Thursday evening from 6–9 pm. Our wonderful volunteers will be at the end of the line ready to assist you and offer guidance on your research queries. No question is too big or too small. Call (020) 7251 8799 and press option 5 (Advice line).

Sources:
  • Ancestry.co.uk; London Metropolitan Archives collections of parish registers of St Faith's Church, Wandsworth.
  • FreeBMD.org.uk
  • Illustrated London News, 9 September 1922, Page 8

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