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Wednesday, 1 May, 2002, 12:10 GMT 13:10 UK
The changing face of May Day
Morris dancers
UK Morris dancers making merry on May Day
May Day is a holiday in many parts of the world, but the day means different things to different people.

For some it is a time to celebrate spring, for others a day to remember the workers of the world.

The origins of May Day go back at least to Saxon England.

Some people believe that May Day celebrations began with the tree worship of Druids - others believe they go back even further to the spring festivals of Egypt.

Romantic traditions

In medieval times, May Day became a favourite holiday of many English villages. People gathered flowers and danced around a maypole.

It became an important festival virtually everywhere in Europe. In Italy, boys serenade their sweethearts. In Switzerland, a May pine tree is placed under a girl's window.

The French considered the month of May sacred to the Virgin Mary. They enshrined young girls as May queens, who led processions in the honour of the Virgin Mary.

The eve of May Day, is celebrated in many parts of Europe as Walpurgisnacht.

It was believed that on this night witches and other evil creatures of the occult were free to roam the world and cast spells.

May Day in Moscow
May Day in Moscow is still an occasion to honour workers' contribution to society
In the late 19th Century, May Day became associated with the organised labour movement.

This was a time when trade unions were growing in strength and demanding fairer conditions, higher wages and limits on the working day.

In 1889, an international Socialists meeting in Paris voted to make May Day a memorial to the struggle of working people throughout the world.

The date was chosen in honour of four men who died three years earlier trying to further workers' rights in the US.

The US Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions had passed a resolution stating that eight hours would constitute a legal day's work from and after 1 May 1886.

But during a mass workers' strike in Chicago on 3 May police fired into the crowd killing four protesters.

Revolutionaries

Protests in Germany
May Day has evolved into a day of protests
The situation worsened a few days later when a bomb was thrown at police during a demonstration to commemorate the workers' deaths in Chicago's Haymarket Square.

A number of anarchists were later rounded up and, despite a lack of evidence connecting any of them with the bomb, they were found guilty and executed.

For revolutionaries and workers everywhere, Haymarket became a symbol of the struggle for a new world.

May Day became a major holiday in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries.

The traditional workers' holiday, recognised as International Labour Day by the United Nations, has evolved into a day of protests for a raft of political and social causes.

See also:

01 May 02 | Europe
May Day tension in Paris
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