Labor Day has been celebrated for over 130 years in America. In May of 1882, the Central Labor Union of New York first celebrated Labor Day. By 1894, the holiday had caught on so much, Grover Cleveland made the holiday official by signing it into law as a federal holiday six days after the infamous Pullman strikes that claimed the lives of several workers, US military, and US marshals. The law moved the holiday to the first Monday in September. But, did you know that Labor Day gets its roots from an ancient holiday now known as May Day?
May Day has been celebrated for over a thousand years and has its roots in Celctic and Germanic spring festivals. Rome would celebrate May Day by way of the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. May Day is basically a day for people to take off work and pick flowers. In medieval England, people would celebrate the start of spring by going out into the woods and gathering flowers. England still celebrates May Day by “mor’ris dancing” (a term that gets its roots from Robin Hood lore), done around a maypole, with the end result being a decorated pole, and of course the crowning of a May queen. In France, the festival involves decorating a maypole with flowers and giving Lilies of the Valley to give to in an effort to find a soul mate. This French tradition dates back to 1561 with King Charles IX presented every lady in his court with a Lily of the Valley. Apparently the King was casting a wide net. But now, the tradition has evolved to include close friends and family members as recipients of the lily as well.
So, how did all of the pagan spring worship become associated with labor? Well, it all starts in 1886 Chicago, where America workers were striking for an eight hour work day. The end result was major riots that lead to dozens dead, including seven police officers. In 1890, the second congress of the Socialist International held in Paris, to show solidarity for their fellow workers, made May 1st the internal day for worker’s rights. This date was probably targeted not only in support of the Chicago workers, but also because the holiday was already observed by most people in Europe and Canada. As a sign of solidarity amongst the working class, those in support wore triangles symbolizing the desire for the perfect day: 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep, and 8 hours of leisure. The triangle was later replaced with a dog rose flower, which is a traditional symbol for happy days going by too fast.
Nowadays, Americans celebrate Labor Day with cook outs. Instead of celebrating the beginning of Spring, we mourn the impending end of Summer. But we can still go back the flowery roots of the holiday, thanking summer for its good times and brilliant foliage. Present your friends with Lillies of the Valley, or find that special someone. And, pin a Dog Rose flower on your shirt as we say good bye to the frivolities of summer.