The first of May was originally celebrated by pagans throughout Europe as the beginning of summer, which was recognised as a day of fertility (both for the first spring planting and sexual intercourse). A maypole was oftentimes erected for young women and men to dance around and entwine the ribbons they carried with one another to find a mate... at least for the night. The ancient Celts and Saxons celebrated the day as Beltane, the day of fire, in honor of the god of the sun; beginning their celebrations at midnight; soon acquiring the label Walpurgisnacht, or night of the witches.
Persecution of May Day began as early as the 1600s; in 1644 the British Parliament banned its practice as immoral, with the Church bringing its full force to bear across the spectrum. Governments throughout Europe were largely ineffective in outlawing these celebrations, and thus the Church took a different approach – it attempted to assimilate the festivities by naming Saints days on the first of May. These efforts led to the destruction of May Day in some places, but the traditions and customs of May Day continued to remain strong throughout much of the peasantry of Europe, whose ties to one another and nature were far stronger than their ties to the ruling class and its religion. Celebrations became increasingly festive, especially at night when huge feasts, song, dance and free love were practiced throughout the night.
After the revolutions of capitalism, the roots and principles of the tradition survived to various extents, with workers across Europe celebrating the first of May as the coming of spring and a day of sexual fertility. Most mythical and religious sentiments faded away, but the spirit of the festival in expressing the love of nature and one another gained strength.
Since the proletarian revolution(s), the first of May is a day of international proletarian solidarity, fighting for the right of freedom without the oppression and exploitation of the capitalist state.