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May Day Celebrations Mostly Thing of the Past in U.S.

Remember when local schools celebrated May Day?

The day marks one of the world's oldest holidays, and has its origins in ancient, pagan festivals, as early as 500 B.C.

The ancient Celts regarded May Day as the single most important day of the whole year, a cross-quarter holiday, marking the midpoint between spring and summer. Other cross-quarter holidays are Groundhog Day, Lammas (celebrated mainly in England) and Halloween.

May Day festivals were mostly agricultural in nature, but celebrated the return of life, light and fertility after winter. By the time of the Roman Empire, these festivals had morphed into celebrations of debauchery, filled with dancing, drunkenness and even orgies.

One holdover from that tradition? Dancing around a Maypole - the "pole" being a sign of virility - which was practiced in most American public schools until well into the 1960s..

In more recent history, May Day has become the equivalent of our Labor Day internationally, a celebration of workers and labor rights. In fact, May Day, or International Workers' Day, as it is known, is often a turbulent day around the world, marked by strikes, protests and labor marches.

International Workers' Day actually has its roots in the United States, despite not being celebrated here. If you're working an eight-hour day today, that began on this day in 1886, as decreed by the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (later AFL-CIO). Previous to that date, it was common for American laborers to work 16 hour days, or even longer.

After the 1894 Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland officially moved the U.S. celebration of Labor Day to the first Monday in September, intentionally severing ties with the international worker’s celebration for fear that it would built support for communism and other radical causes. 

Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to reinvent May Day in 1958, further distancing the memories of the Haymarket Riot, by declaring May 1 to be “Law Day,” celebrating the place of law in the creation of the United States.

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