Who doesn't love that time of the year when the winter chill fades and the world comes out from snow? Flowers bloom, birds return from points south, and bulky sweaters and boots get consigned to the closet.
For ancient people, this time of year also marked the end of dangerous weather that led to food shortage and disease, and the return of planting and outdoor activity. In celebration, they created May Day.
Something for Everyone
May Day is observed on the first day of May, and is essentially a celebration of the survival of another long winter and the arrival of Spring. The holiday has its roots in the Pagan holidays of Beltane and Walpurgis, but today the festivities revolve around both the arrival of warm weather and workers' rights.
The day is many things to many people - to Catholics, it's a tribute to the virgin Mary; in many parts of Europe, it's a fertility festival; to the politically-minded, it's a memorial for the Haymarket riots and a chance to rally the everyman; to Pagans and the non-religious, it's a celebration of the awakening of the northern hemisphere.
Ribbons, Flowers and Fertility
Traditional festivities are most famously marked by the Maypole dance, in which children wind colorful ribbons around a pole during an intricately-patterned dance.
In Germany, young men anonymously leave ribbon-festooned trees on the doorsteps of young women, but the young women take their turn in leap years. Both the trees (and the pole, which symbolizes a tree) and the colorful ribbons are meant to mimic the blossoming of new life that occurs in the spring.
This symbolism is also apparent in the custom of leaving small cone-shaped baskets of flowers hanging on neighbors' doorknobs - you leave the basket, ring the doorbell and run away; if your neighbor catches you, you exchange a kiss (or a hearty handshake).
The French tradition of exchanging lily-of-the-valleys bouquets came about when King Charles IX presented them to the ladies of the court on a 16th-century May Day.
Spring is the time of year when animals mate, after the danger of freezing is past (it's very difficult to raise young in the winter due to food shortages and dangerously low temperatures), and when plants bloom (flowers are the vehicle of plant reproduction).
It's only natural then, that humans hold fertility rituals in the spring - celebrants in Cornwall dress as horses and cavort through the streets with accompanying singers and accordion players - young women who are "caught" by the horses are said to be blessed with fertility.
May Day initially became affiliated with workers' rights during the Industrial Revolution, when labor groups began demonstrating for an eight-hour work day on May 1. In the U.S., it became connected with the Haymarket riots in 1886 Chicago, in which a workers' rally turned violent and resulted in at least a dozen fatalities.
Over the years, the idea of merging workers' rights with May Day has spread across the world throughout Asia, Europe and the Americas. It's even a national holiday in places like China, India, Taiwan and Bangladesh, which are not exactly known for their acceptance of or adherence to workers' rights.
Whether you celebrate May Day for the spring, for fertility or for the laborers, celebrate it proudly. You're carrying on a thousand-year-old tradition and injecting a bit of celebration into your life.
It's a chance to get outside, express joy and freedom, and walk barefoot through the grass. Or, maybe it's a time to organize and make your opinions heard. Either way, the first of May is not just another day.