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Nay on May Day

MAY DAY, with its special festivities around a maypole, never took root in America, although the holiday was popular in England in colonial times. When one Thomas Morton erected an 80-foot maypole on May 1, 1627, leaders from nearby Plymouth colony - suspecting he was up to a whole lot of immoral activity - cut down the maypole and saw to it that Morton was shipped back to England. The problem with the maypole and May Day festivities was the American public's equation of the holiday with idleness at a time when labor was scarce and work was the order of the day. By the time Washington Irving traveled to England in the early nineteenth century, American hostility to the day had eased, as illustrated by Irving's remarks: ``I shall never forget the delight I felt on first seeing a Maypole.... The mere sight of this Maypole gave a glow to my feelings and spread a charm over the country for the rest of the day.'' By this time, however, the Fourth of July was America's day to express nationalistic feelings.

When European labor unions in the 1880s moved toward adopting May 1 as the international labor celebration, American leaders didn't go along with the idea. They looked to the calendar and decided that May Day wasn't a good date for the holiday. They noted that there was no holiday to break up the long interval between July 4 and Thanksgiving. Moreover, the international day was soon discredited, first by the riot associated with the Haymarket Square bombing in Chicago after May Day, 1886, later by the perception of European movements as too radical. Little wonder, then, that the congressional legislated Labor Day is in September.

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But after World War II, the Veterans of Foreign Wars labored to have May 1 observed as Loyalty Day. And after a campaign by the American Bar Association, May 1 was formally recognized as Law Day by a joint resolution of Congress in 1961. Ironically, the day that America originally shunned represents today a time to consider the nation's finer points, including respect for the law and its place in contemporary American life. ``The laws of a nation'' wrote Edward Gibbon, ``form the most instructive portion of its history.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at The American University.

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