Apr 7, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Humans have always looked to Spring as a time for fresh starts. It’s a time when everything blossoms: from flowers to love to the cleaning projects we’ve neglected. Spring is a time to bask in the sun and shake off those Winter blues. There are several major religious holidays during Spring, holidays that both inspire and rejuvenate. But for this feature I’d like to focus on a couple secular holidays. These two special days may mark the start of a new month, but that’s where the similarities end and the intrigue begins! We’ll chart our course in chronological order. Up first is April Fool’s Day.
Pranksters get their moment to shine on April 1st, while unsuspecting people have nowhere to hide. This day filled with practical jokes and general silliness is now celebrated on every continent. Since I typically spend this day peeking around every corner, trying to avoid mayhem, I’ve never wondered about the origin story of this event. Perhaps you’re in the same boat! But fear not because this is the year we’ll peek behind the curtain. No one knows for certain precisely what kicked this off, but most scholars agree that a calendar change in the late 1500s got the ball rolling. The year was 1582 and France was in the midst of a massive administrative project. A couple decades earlier the Council of Trent had issued their final decrees and one of the to-do’s was a calendar update. (For a quick recap: the Council of Trent was how the Roman Catholic Church responded to Reformation.) France was moving from the Julian calendar, originally created by Julius Caesar, to the Gregorian calendar. This new approach helped keep things more inline with natural rhythms and it standardized leap year policies. Keep in mind that all of this took place before mass media or marketing campaigns. Naturally the Council of Trent was major news, but France adopted this revised calendar nearly twenty years later. Even with printing presses rolling, it was tough to get the news out. The result was mass confusion.
People were getting New Year’s party invites for both January 1st (per the Gregorian calendar) and the last week of March (per the Julian calendar). It was clear – not everyone was on board with this new way of thinking. The “pro-Gregorian” set reacted by teasing their old school neighbors. It was all in jest and light-hearted (much like today). What I like best about this response is that they “enforced” the new policy by basically making a new holiday to replace the outdated New Year’s eve bash. If you’re curious, the top prank during the late 1500s involved placing a paper fish on someone’s back without them knowing. Perhaps this is the predecessor to the “kick me” signs of playground lore. The fish represented someone who was gullible and “easily caught.”
The laugh-inducing energy of April Fool’s Day couldn’t be stopped and it soon expanded beyond the confines of France. The Scottish decided to extend it to a two-day affair. For the first day you send your friends, neighbors, or loved ones on phony errands and the second day pays homage to the paper fish. Known as the Tailie Day, people place fake tails or signs on their April Fool’s Day victims. Over time April Fool’s Day has become a day where anyone can let their impish side shine. From big corporations to news outlets, everyone gets a pass to get creative and share a laugh on April 1st.
As we fast-forward a month we find ourselves celebrating May Day. For many generations this was a celebration of the changing of seasons, ushering in a time for harvest or planting (depending on your geographic location). By medieval times the maypole dance was introduced. Entire villages would gather to dance around the maypole, ribbons in hand and dodging streamers swaying in the breeze. The day was all about jubilation and togetherness. During the pre-Industrial Revolution era it also included neighborly love. May Day baskets filled with flowers, treats, and gifts were left at doorsteps. But as the world changed, May Day evolved.
The Industrial Revolution was messy and sometimes deadly. Working conditions were lethal and people knew a change had to come. In 1884 a convention held in Chicago declared an 8 hour work day must be the new law. They declared that this new standard would take effect on May 1, 1886. When that fateful day arrived, supporters showed up in force. Nearly half a million people went on strike to rally around this newly-formed labor movement. Sadly the event would not remain peaceful. Police were approaching the protestors at the McCormick Reaper Works when a bomb exploded. By the time the dust settled fifteen people had lost their lives. This event set off a national debate and in the following years it became an international cause. May 1st was now recognized as a day for workers’ rights around the world. This recognition was surprisingly short-lived in the USA. Following the 1894 Pullman strike, the government officially decreed Labor Day as September 1st in an attempt to distance the celebrations from its Chicago roots. Since 1958 May 1st has been known in America as Law Day.
May Day proves that holidays can have a complicated history. Personally I don’t see this day’s range of values as mutually exclusive. April Fool’s has come and gone for this year, but I’m going to celebrate May Day by doling out some neighborly love and doing what I can to support my community as a whole. Come to think of it, maybe every day should be May Day! What do you think dear reader? After all, Spring is the time when good things come to life…