The History of May Day Celebration

By | May 1, 2021
a typical current May Day celebration

    May Day is an international holiday that is annually observed on May 1st .The celebration was associated to the  achievements of the labour movement as a sign of commemorating their hardwork over the periods. MAY DAY can also be termed as LABOUR DAY or INTERNATIONAL WORKERS’ DAY. It is obvious that this special day was set aside to honour workers. For  this reason, May Day is often declared as a public holiday in countries that observe it. However, events that led to the celebration of May Day differ from country to country.

      In Ghana, the celebration of May Day begun after Ghana’s independence on 6th March ,1957. The first May Day was observed after Ghana became a full- fledged republican state in 1960. At that time, Ghana’s first president, Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah was declared the “ First Number One Worker”. He was decorated with May Day award by the Trades Union Congress (TUC).This event resulted in May Day becoming an indelible celebration in Ghana’s  national calendar.

       In recent days, the celebration of May Day has been accepted whole heartedly by Ghanaians. During the celebration, workers of different organizations, associations and institutions undertake several activities to honour this day. They undertake health walks, rallies and provide symposia  on sensitive issues affecting the local people (how to prevent malaria, teenage pregnancy or monetary issues like how to save money among others). Some benevolent ones donate food and drink items to the needy and to some extent, sponsor free health screening for them. It’s obvious that Ghanaians have taken keen interest in the celebration of the May Day, but the undiscovered mystery is how the marking of the day as a workers’ day came about. We can only rely on history to get answers. Read on.

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            The celebration of May Day was borne out of the same reason of which festivals are celebrated, that is, to honour gods ,pray for good health and fertility. The  May Day celebration dates back to the Beltane festivity, which was held on May 1 or about halfway between spring equinox and the summer solstice. Historically, Beltane festival was initiated by The Celts ( a tribe of people from Ireland, Scotland or Great Britain). The Beltane ( May Day festival) was believed to divide the year in half, between light and darkness. One of the main rituals of this festival was dancing around a symbolic fire which they believed was helping to sustain life and return fertility to the world. However, when the Romans took over the British isles, they brought along  a five-day celebration known as Floralia . This  festival was  celebrated to honour  the goddess of flowers called Flora.   Floralia was opened with various displays and activities ranging from theatrical performances, nude dancing, gladiator contests to circus events. This usually takes place between April 20 and May 2. The Floralia was eventually combined   with the Beltane festival.

beltane festival
The Beltane festival

           Also, another popular tradition linked to the celebration of May Day is  May Pole Dance. Historians believe that the May pole dance originated as part of the fertility ritual where participants danced around a tall  pole decorated with baskets and wreaths. The basket symbolized male fertility while the wreaths symblolized female fertility.

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            However, the tagging of  May 1 as international workers’ day stemmed from the connection between the May Day and Labour rights  which  begun in the United States during the 19th century when the  “industrial revolution” was hightened and resulted in thousands of men, women and children dying from poor working conditions and long hours. This compelled the Federation of Organized Trades and Labour  Unions (FOTLU) which later became American Federation of Labour (AFL), to reduce the long hours of working to 8 hours a day for every worker.  This was initiated on  May 1, 1886. Later, the then America’s largest labour organization backed the proclamation of the  FOTLU  and encouraged workers to embark on a strike action and demonstration. This resulted in over 30,000  workers walking out of their jobs.

             Consequently, the demonstration led to a chaos tagged as the Haymarket Riot which resulted in the killing of  about seven police men and eight civilians after a bomb was thrown in their midst by an unknown person. Few years after the Haymarket Riot, a new organization called The Socialist and Labour Party was formed to help maintain and regulate good working conditions for all workers. The workers history of  MAY 1 was finally accepted and endorsed by many governments worldwide. In recent days, Mayday  is officially declared a holiday in about more than 60 countries and Ghana is no exception.

Now, May Day is  even attributed to the international distress call. A code that was invented by Mockford Frederick, an airpot radio officer  in London in 1923.  He was challenged to come up with a word that would be easily understood by pilots and ground staffs in case of an emergency. Frederick coined the word “May Day”  because it sounded like “m’aider” which was a  shortened French version for “come and help me”.  May Day has now become part of the language that pilots and ground staffs use to communicate easily.  

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