The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of May Day

Historical Essay

by Peter Linebaugh

A Beginning

Image: Shaping San Francisco
To the history of May Day there is a Green side and there is a Red side.

Green is a relationship to the earth and what grows therefrom. Red is a relationship to other people and the blood spilt there among. Green designates life with only necessary labor; Red refuses death by surplus labor. Green is natural appropriation; Red is war against social expropriation. Green is social utility; Red resists manufactured futility. Green dreams of the world that is to come; Red resists the world as it is. Green is nurturance; Red is struggle. May Day is both.

The Green

Once upon a time, long before President Clinton was born, before there was a New World Order, long before the 20th century, the earth was blanketed by a broad mantle of forests. As late at Caesar’s time a person might travel through the woods for two months without gaining an unobstructed view of the sky. The immense forests of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America provided the atmosphere with oxygen and the earth with nutrients. Within the woodland ecology our ancestors did not have to work the graveyard shift, or to deal with flextime, or work from Nine to Five. Indeed, the native Americans whom Captain John Smith encountered in 1606 only worked four hours a week. The origin of May Day is to be found in the Woodland Epoch of history.

In Europe, as in Africa, people honored the woods in many ways. With the leafing of the trees in spring, people celebrated “the fructifying spirit of vegetation,” to use the phrase of anthropologist J.G. Frazer. They did this in May, a month named after Maia, the mother of all the gods according to the ancient Greeks, giving birth even to Zeus. The Greeks had their sacred groves, the Druids their oak worship, the Romans had their games in honor of Floralia. In Scotland the herdsmen formed circles and danced around fires. The Celts lit bonfires in hilltops to honor their god, Beltane. In the Tyrol people let their dogs bark and made music with pots and pans. In Scandinavia fires were lit and the witches came out.

Everywhere people “went a-Maying” by going into the woods and bringing back leaf, bough, and blossom to decorate their persons, homes, and loved ones with green garlands. Outside theater was performed with characters like “Jack-in-the-Green” and “Queen of the May.” Trees were planted. Maypoles were erected. Dances were danced. Music was played. Drinks were drunk, and love was made. Winter was over, spring had sprung.

The history of these customs is complex and affords the student of the past with many interesting insights into the history of religion, gender, reproduction, and village ecology. Take Joan of Arc who was burned in May 1431. Her inquisitors believed she was a witch. Not far from her birthplace, she told the judges, “there is a tree that they call ‘The Ladies Tree’—other call it ‘The Fairies Tree.’ It is a beautiful tree, from which comes the Maypole. I have sometimes been to play with the young girls to make garlands for Our Lady of Domremy. Often I have heard the old folk say that the fairies haunt this tree. . . “ In the general indictment against Joan, one of the particulars against her was dressing like a man. The paganism of Joan’s heresy originated in the Old Stone Age when religion was animistic and shamans were women and men.

Monotheism arose with the Mediterranean empires. Even the most powerful Roman Empire had to make deals with its conquered and enslaved peoples (syncretism). As it destroyed some customs it had to accept or transform others. Thus we have Christmas Trees.

The farmers, workers, and child-bearers (laborers) of the Middle Ages had hundreds of holydays which preserved the May Green, despite the attack on peasants and witches. Despite the complexities, whether May Day was observed by sacred or profane ritual, by pagan or Christian, by magic or not, by straights or gays, by gentle or calloused hands, it was always a celebration of all that is free and life-giving in the world. That is the Green side of the story. whatever else it was, it was not a time to work.


Therefore, it was attacked by the authorities. The repression had begun with the burning of women and it continued in the 16th century when America was “discovered,” the slave trade was begun, and nation-states and capitalism was formed. In 1550 an Act of Parliament demanded that Maypoles be destroyed, and it outlawed games. In 1644 the Puritans in England abolished May Day altogether. To these work-ethicists the festival was obnoxious for paganism and worldliness. Philip Stubs, for example, in Anatomy of Abuses (1585) wrote of the Maypole, “and then fall they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce about it, as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their idolles.” When a Puritan mentioned ‘heathen’ we know genocide was not far away. Ninety percent of the Massachusetts people, including Chief Chicatabat, died from chicken pox or smallpox a few years after the Puritans landed in 1619. The Puritans also objected to the unrepressed sexuality of the day. Stubs said, “of fourtie, threescore, or an hundred maides going to the wood, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home againe as they went.”

The people resisted the repressions. Thenceforth, they called their May sports, the “Robin Hood Games.” Capering about with sprigs of hawthorn in their hair and bells jangling from their knees, the ancient characters of May were transformed into an outlaw community, Maid Marions and Little Johns. The May feast was presided over by the “Lord of Misrule,” “The King of Unreason,” or the “Abbot of Inobedience.” Washington Irving was later to write that the feeling for May “has become chilled by habits of gain and traffic.” As the gainers and traffickers sought to impose the regimen of monotonous work, the people responded to preserve their holyday. Thus began in earnest the Red side of the story of May Day. The struggle was brought to Massachusetts in 1626.


In 1625 Captain Wollaston, Thomas Morton, and thirty others sailed from England and months later, taking their bearings from a red cedar tree, they disembarked in Quincy Bay. A year later Wollaston, impatient for lucre and gain, left for good to Virginia. Thomas Morton settled in Passonaggessit which he named Merry Mount. The land seemed a “Paradise” to him. He wrote, there are “fowls in abundance, fish in multitudes, and I discovered besides, millions of turtle doves on the green boughs, which sat pecking of the full, ripe, pleasant grapes that were supported by the lusty trees, whose fruitful load did cause the arms to bend.”

On May Day, 1627, he and his Indian friends, stirred by the sound of drums, erected a Maypole eighty feet high, decorated it with garlands, wrapped it in ribbons, and nailed to its top the antlers of a buck. Later he wrote that he “sett up a Maypole upon the festival day of Philip and James, and therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beare.” A ganymede sang a Bacchanalian song. Morton attached to the pole the first lyric verses penned in America which concluded,

With the proclamation that the first of May
At Merry Mount shall be kept holly day

The Puritans at Plymouth were opposed to the May Day. They called the Maypole “an idoll” and named Merry Mount “Mount Dagon” after the god of the first ocean-going imperialists, the Phoenicians. More likely, though, the Puritans were the imperialists, not Morton, who worked with slaves, servants, and native Americans, person to person. Everyone was equal in his “social contract.” Governor Bradford wrote, “they allso set up a Maypole, drinking and dancing aboute it many days togeather, inviting the Indean women for their consorts, dancing and frisking togither (like so many faires, or furies rather) and worse practises.”

Merry Mount became a refuge for Indians, the discontented, gay people, runaway servants, and what the governor called “all the scume of the countrie.” When the authorities reminded him that his actions violated the King’s Proclamation, Morton replied that it was “no law.” Miles Standish, whom Morton called “Mr. Shrimp,” attacked. The Maypole was cut down. The settlement was burned. Morton’s goods were confiscated, he was chained in the bilboas, and ostracized to England aboard the ship “The Gift,” at a cost the Puritans complained of, of twelve pounds seven shillings. The rainbow coalition of Merry Mount was thus destroyed for the time being. That Merry Mount later (1636) became associated with Anne Hutchinson, the famous midwife, spiritualist, and feminist, was surely more than coincidental. Her brother-in-law ran the Chapel of Ease. She thought that god loved everybody, regardless of their sins. She doubted the Puritans’ authority to make law. A statue of Robert Burns in Quincy (Massachusetts), near to Merry Mount, quotes the poet’s lines:

A fig for those by law protected!
Liberty’s a glorious feast!
Courts for cowards were erected,
Churches built to please the priest.

Thomas Morton was a thorn in the side of the Boston and Plymouth Puritans, because he had an alternate vision of Massachusetts. He was impressed by its fertility; they by its scarcity. He befriended the Indians; they shuddered at the thought. He was egalitarian; they proclaimed themselves the “Elect.” He freed servants; they lived off them. He armed the Indians; they used arms against Indians. To Nathaniel Hawthorne, the destiny of American settlement was decided at Merry Mount. Casting the struggle as mirth vs. gloom, grizzly saints vs. gay sinners, green vs. iron, it was the Puritans who won, and the fate of America was determined in favor of psalm-singing, Indian-scalpers whose notion of the Maypole was a whipping post.

On Both Sides of the Atlantic

In England the attacks on May Day were a necessary part of the wearisome, unending attempts to establish industrial work discipline. The attempt was led by the Puritans with their belief that toil was godly and less toil wicked. Absolute surplus value could be increased only by increasing the hours of labor and abolishing holydays. A parson wrote a piece of work propaganda called Funebria Florae, or the Downfall of the May Games. He attacked, “ignorants, atheists, papists, drunkards, swearers, swashbucklers, maid-marians, morrice-dancers, maskers, mummers, Maypole stealers, health-drinkers, together with a rapscallion rout of fiddlers, fools fighters, gamesters, lewd-women, light-women, contemmers of magistracy, affronters of ministry, disobedients to aprents, misspenders of time, and abusers of the creature, &c.”

At about this time, Isaac Newton, the gravitationist and machinist of time, said work was a law of planets and apples alike. Thus work ceased to be merely the ideology of the Puritans, it became a law of the universe. In 1717 Newton purchased London’s hundred foot Maypole and used it to prop up his telescope.

Chimney sweeps and dairy maids led the resistance. The sweeps dressed up as women on May Day, or put on aristocratic perriwigs. They sang songs and collected money. When the Earl of Bute in 1763 refused to pay, the opprobrium was so great that he was forced to resign. Milk maids used to go a-Maying by dressing in floral garlands, dancing, and getting the dairymen to distribute their milk-yield freely. Soot and milk workers thus helped to retain the holyday right into the industrial revolution.

The ruling class used the day for its own purposes. Thus, when Parliament was forced to abolish slavery in the British dominions, it did so on May Day 1807. In 1820 the Cato Street conspirators plotted to destroy the British cabinet while it was having dinner. Irish, Jamaican, and Cockney were hanged for the attempt on May Day 1820. A conspirator wrote his wife saying “justice and liberty have taken their flight ... to other distant shores.” He meant America, where Boston Brahmin, Robber Baron, and Southern Plantocrat divided and ruled an arching rainbow of people.

Two bands of that rainbow came from English and Irish islands. One was Green. Robert Owen, union leader, socialist, and founder of utopian communities in America, announced the beginning of the millenium after May Day 1833.

The other was Red. On May Day 1830, a founder of the Knights of Labor, the United Mine Workers of America, and the Wobblies was born in Ireland, Mary Harris Jones, a.k.a. “Mother Jones.” She was a Maia of the American working class.

May Day continued to be commemorated in America, one way or another, despite the victory of the Puritans at Merry Mount. On May Day 1779 the revolutionaries of Boston confiscated the estates of “enemies of Liberty.” On May Day 1808, “twenty different dancing groups of the wretched Africans” in New Orleans danced to the tunes of their own drums until sunset when the slave patrols showed themselves with their cutlasses. “The principal dancers or leaders are dressed in a variety of wild and savage fashions, always ornamented with a number of tails of the small wild beasts,” observed a strolling white man.

Cc n LR may day 201072dpi.jpg

Chris Carlsson and LisaRuth Elliott recite Linebaugh's History of May Day at Dolores Park May Day gathering, 2010.

Photo by Liz Highleyman

The Red: Haymarket

The history of modern May Day originates in the center of the North American plains, at Haymarket. In Chicago—“the city on the make”—in May 1886. The Red side of that story is more well-known than the Green, because it was bloody. But there was also a Green side to the tale, though the green was not so much that of pretty grass garlands, as it was of greenbacks, for in Chicago, it was said, the dollar is king.

Of course the prairies are green in May. Virgin soil, dark, brown, crumbling, shot with fine black sand, it was the produce of thousands of years of humus and organic decomposition. For many centuries this earth was husbanded by the native Americans of the plains.

The land was mechanized. Relative surplus value could only be obtained by reducing the price of food. The proteins and vitamins of this fertile earth spread through the whole world. Chicago was the jugular vein. Cyrus McCormick wielded the surgeon’s knife. His mechanical reapers harvested the grasses and grains. McCormick produced 1,500 reapers in 1849; by 1865 he produced 30,000. Not that McCormick actually made reapers, members of the Molders Union Local 23 did that, and on May Day 1867 they went on strike, starting the Eight Hour Movement.

A staggering transformation was wrought. It was “Farewell” to the hammer and sickle. “Goodbye” to the cradle scythe. “So long” to Emerson’s man with the hoe. These now became the artifacts of nostalgia and romance. It became: “Hello” to the hobo, “move on” to the harvest stiffs, “line up” to the proletarians. Such were the new commands of civilization.

McCormick cut wages 15%. His profit was 71%. In May 1886, four molders whom McCormick locked out were shot dead by the police. Thus, did this “grim reaper” maintain his profits.

Nationally, May First 1886 was important because a couple of years earlier the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada,

“RESOLVED ... that eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor, from and after May 1, 1886.”

On May 4, 1886 several thousand people gathered near Haymarket Square to hear what August Spies, a newspaperman, had to say about the shootings at the McCormick works. Albert Parsons, a typographer and labor leader spoke next. Later, at his trial, he said, “What is Socialism or Anarchism? Briefly stated it is the right of toilers to the free and equal use of the tools of production and the right of the producers to their product.” He was followed by “Good-Natured Sam” Fielden who as a child had worked in the textile factories of Lancashire, England. He was a Methodist preacher and labor organizer. He got done speaking at 10:30 p.m. At that time 176 policemen charged the crowd that had dwindled to about 200. An unknown hand threw a stick of dynamite, the first time that Alfred Nobel’s invention was used in class battle.

All hell broke loose, many were killed, and the rest is history.

“Make the raids first and look up the law afterwards,” was the Sheriff’s dictum. It was followed religiously across the country. Newspapers screamed for blood, homes were ransacked, and suspects were subjected to the “third degree.” Eight men were railroaded in Chicago at a farcical trial. Four men hanged on “Black Friday,” November 11, 1887.

“There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today,” said Spies before he choked.

May Day Since 1886

Lucy Parsons, widowed by Chicago’s “just-us,” was born in Texas. She was partly African American, partly native American, and partly Hispanic. She set out to tell the world the true story “of one whose only crime was that he lived in advance of his time.” She went to England and encouraged English workers to make May Day an international holiday for shortening the hours of work.

Her work was not in vain. May Day, or “The Day of the Chicago Martyrs” as it is still called in Mexico, “belongs to the working class and is dedicated to the revolution,” as Eugene Debs put it in his May Day editorial of 1907. The A.F. of L. declared it a holiday. Sam Gompers sent an emissary to Europe to have it proclaimed an International Labor Day. Both the Knights of Labor and the Second International officially adopted the day. Bismarck, on the other hand, outlawed May Day. President Grover Cleveland announced that the first Monday in September would be Labor Day in America, as he tried to divide the international working class.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 began on May Day. With the success of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution the Red side of May Day became scarlet, crimson, for ten million people were slaughtered in World War I. The end of the war brought work stoppages, general strikes, and insurrections all over the world, from Mexico to Kenya, from China to France. In Boston on May Day 1919 the young telephone workers threatened to strike, and 20,000 workers in Lawrence MA went on strike again for the 8-hour day. There were fierce clashes between working people and police in Cleveland as well as in other cities on May Day of that year. A lot of socialists, anarchists, bolsheviks, wobblies and other “I-Won’t-Workers,” ended up in jail as a result.

This didn’t get them down. At “Wire City,” as they called the federal pen at Fort Leavenworth, there was a grand parade and no work on May Day 1919. Pictures of Lenin and Lincoln were tied to the end of broomsticks and held aloft. There were speeches and songs. The Liberator supplies us with an account of the day, but it does not tell us who won the Wobbly-Socialist horseshoe throwing contest. Nor does it tell us what happened to the soldier caught waving a red ribbon from the guards’ barracks. Meanwhile, one mile underground in the copper mines of Bisbee AZ where there are no national boundaries, Spanish-speaking Americans were singing “The Internationale” on May Day.

In the 1920s and 1930s the day was celebrated by union organizers, the unemployed, and determined workers. In New York City the big May Day celebration was held in Union Square. In the 1930s Lucy Parsons marched in Chicago at May Day with her young friend Studs Terkel. May Day 1946 the Arabs began a general strike in Palestine, and the Jews of the Displaced Persons Camps in Landsberg, Germany, went on hunger strike. On May Day 1947 autoworkers in Paris downed tools, and an insurrection in Paraguay broke out. 1968 was a good year for May Day. Allen Ginsberg was made the “Lord of Misrule” in Prague before the Russians got there. In London hundreds of students lobbied Parliament against a bill to stop third world immigration into England. In Mississippi could not prevent 350 black students from supporting their jailed friends. At Columbia University thousands of students petitioned against armed police on campus. In Detroit with the help of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement, the first wildcat strike in fifteen years took place at the Hamtramck Assembly plant (Dodge Main), against speed-up. The climax to May 1968 was reached in France where there was a gigantic General Strike under strange slogans such as “Parlez à vos voisins!” (Talk to your neighbors), “L’imagination prend le pouvoir!” (All power to the imagination!), “Dessous le pavés c’est la plage!” (Beneath the pavement, the beach!).

On May Day in 1971 President Nixon couldn’t sleep. He ordered 10,000 paratroopers and marines to Washington D.C. because he was afraid that some people calling themselves the May Day Tribe might succeed in their goal of blocking access to the Department of Justice. In San Francisco, hundreds of May Day protesters stopped business as usual in the Financial District on May 5, 1971, as spontaneous marches were met with police attacks on California, Bush and Sansome streets, hospitalizing over 60 protesters. In the Philippines four students were shot to death protesting the dictatorship. In May 1980, we see Green themes in Mozambique, where the workers lamented the absence of beer, or in Germany where three hundred women witches rampaged through Hamburg. Red themes may be seen in the 30,000 Brazilian auto workers who struck, or the 5.8 million Japanese who struck against inflation.

On May Day 1980, the Green and Red themes were combined when a former Buick automaker from Detroit, one “Mr. Toad,” sat at a picnic table and penned the following lines: The eight hour day is not enough;

We are thinking of more and better stuff.
So here is our prayer and here is our plan,
We want what we want and we’ll take what we can.
Down with wars both small and large,
Except for the ones where we’re in charge:
Those are the wars of class against class,
Where we get a chance to kick some ass.
For air to breathe and water to drink,
And no more poison from the kitchen sink,
For land that’s green and life that’s saved
And less and less of the earth that’s paved.
No more women who are less than free,
Or men who cannot learn to see
Their power steals their humanity
And makes us all less than we can be.
For teachers who learn and students who teach
And schools that are kept beyond the reach
Of provosts and deans and chancellors and such
And Xerox and Kodak and Shell, Royal Dutch.
An end to shops that are dark and dingy,
An end to Bosses whether good or stingy,
And end to work that produces junk,
An end to junk that produces work,
And an end to all in charge—the jerks.
For all who dance and sing, loud cheers,
To the prophets of doom we send some jeers,
To our friends and lovers we give free beers,
And to all who are here, a day without fears.
So, on this first of May we all should say
That we will either make it or break it.
Or, to put this thought another way,
Let’s take it easy, but let’s take it.