In Belgium and France, the first of may is been a holiday since 1947. It’s the International Workers’ Day which commemorates the struggles for the 8-hour day.
In Belgium the tradition is to offer a bit of Lily of the Valley to the beloved people ( husband/wife, parents, friend ) which brings happiness for the coming year.
Origins of May 1
Even before the advent of the workers’ world or the celebration of thrush, May 1st was a date of rituals. For the Celts, this date marked the feast of Beltaine: it marked the transition from the dark season to the clear season, the resumption of hunting, war. This « renaissance » is related to Belenos (incarnation in light of the god Lug). According to the texts, druids lit fires, charged with symbolically protecting the cattle from epidemics. This festival was therefore opposed to Samain – ancestor of our Toussaint – which marked the return to the darkness. Traces of these practices survive on the night of Walpurgis, a Christian pagan celebration: large fires were lit in Germany, Sweden or Central Europe.
It takes its origins in the history of the workers’ world. The starting point was Saturday, May 1, 1886. That day in Chicago, a protest movement for the 8-hour day was launched by the then growing American trade unions. A strike, followed by 400,000 workers paralyzed many factories. The date of May 1 is not chosen at random: it is the « moving day », the day when traditionally, the American companies realize the calculations of their accounting year. The movement continues and on May 4, at a demonstration, a bomb is thrown on the police who are fighting back. Ten deaths, including 7 policemen. This will be followed by the death sentences of five anarchists.
Three years later, the Congress of the Second Socialist International, which met in Paris for the centenary of the French Revolution, decided to make May 1 an « International Workers’ Day » with the aim of imposing the eight-hour day. This date was chosen in memory of the May 1, 1886 Chicago movement. As early as 1890, the demonstrators displayed a red triangle representing their triple claim: 8 hours of work, 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours of leisure. This mark was gradually replaced by a wild rose flower in 1891, when a demonstration at Fourmies in the north of France degenerated, with the forces of order firing on the crowd. That day, a young woman wearing a wild rose is killed. This flower becomes the symbol of May 1st (the thrush will not return until later).
May 1st and thrush
It seems that the lily of the valley, a plant originally from Japan, has been present in Europe since the Middle Ages. The plant with bells always symbolized the spring and the Celts granted him virtues luck. On May 1, 1561, King Charles IX made things official: having received a strand of lily of the valley as a lucky charm, he decided to offer it to the ladies of the court every year. The tradition was born.
May 1st holiday
It will take almost 30 years for French workers to be heard. On April 23, 1919, the Senate ratified the law establishing the eight-hour day. Exceptionally, to celebrate this advance, the High Assembly declares May 1, 1919 day off. In the years that follow, May 1st is gradually emerging as a worker’s rendezvous, a day of processions.
It is the Vichy regime that officially celebrates May 1st. With this measure, Marshal Pétain and his Minister of Labor, René Belin are trying to get the support of the workers. The day, instituted on 24 April 1941, is named: « Labor Day and Social Concorde ». An appellation that emphasizes Vichy’s desire to unite bosses and workers according to a corporatist spirit and to put an end to the class struggle. It is the regime of Vichy and only he who, in the history of France, will officially designate May 1st as « Labor Day ». The term was not subsequently adopted by the Liberation Government. In April 1947, the Liberal government confirmed that May 1 would remain a paid holiday.
Today Labor Day is commemorated by a non-working day in most European countries with the exception of Switzerland and the Netherlands. May 1 is also celebrated in South Africa, Latin America, Russia, Japan. In the United Kingdom, the first Monday in May is celebrated. In the United States, Labor Day is celebrated on the first Monday in September. This day of homage to the labor movement was born in 1887, at the request of the unions, after the slaughter of Chicago. But, at the request of US President Grover Cleveland, it was not set May 1 so as not to recall this dramatic moment.