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A Brief History of May Day

When people hear “May Day,” they’ll likely think of the international distress call, “mayday.” But there’s another version of May Day that has nothing to do with an emergency: the holiday observed on May 1.

While May Day often commemorates spring with activities such as gathering flowers and dancing around a maypole, it’s also linked to the labor movement. Labor Day may now be the better-known American holiday when it comes to honoring workers, but people around the world observe May 1 as Workers' Day or International Workers' Day. In 2023, May Day falls on Monday, May 1.

May Day's Long History as a Spring Celebration

A view of the top of a Maypole during a Spring May Day celebration.
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May Day was first shaped by Greek, Roman, and Celtic festivals held to mark the arrival of spring. The ancient Romans took a week at the beginning of the season — often on or around May 1 — to pay tribute to the goddess of spring, Flora, in the Floralia festival. During the ancient Greek festival of Protomagia, which is still celebrated today, people decorate their homes with flower wreaths as a way to welcome nature. The Celtic holiday of Beltane, which celebrates the opening of pastures, is also celebrated on May 1.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, May Day celebrations included weaving floral garlands, collecting flowers, crowning a May queen, and other fun and games.

Another important May Day tradition is the maypole, which can be traced back to medieval times. Celebrants decorated either a tree cut down for the purpose or a permanent structure with streamers or ribbons before dancing around it. While the maypole's origins are uncertain, it may have been inspired by a fertility ritual. Today, parts of Europe still celebrate May Day with maypole dancing and floral crowns.

May Day in the United States

Happy May Day traditional gift of Spring Flowers in orange paper cone.
Credit: Milleflore Images/ Shutterstock

Given the amount of fun folks could have on May Day, it's not surprising that Puritans didn't approve of the holiday. When a New England settlement was ready to enjoy May Day in 1627, Puritans burned the maypole, and the merchant who'd organized the celebration was dispatched back to England.

But that didn’t stop Americans, and by the 19th century, May Day celebrations were in full swing. Lasting through the first half of the 20th century, rituals included children dancing around the maypole, weaving floral hoops and hair garlands, and even the crowning of a May king and queen. Another popular way to acknowledge May Day in America was the creation of May Baskets. Flowers, sweets, and other small tokens would be placed in baskets that were secretly hung on the doors of family, neighbors, or friends to be discovered on May 1.

However, by the 1960s and ‘70s, interest in May Day festivities began to wane because many Americans began to associate the holiday with honoring labor workers instead of celebrating spring.

May Day as a Part of Labor History

 Illustration depicting the Anarchist (Haymarket) Riot on May 4th, 1886 in Chicago. Shows a bomb exploding among the police.
Credit: Bettmann via Getty Images

In the late 19th century, American labor organizers decided May 1 should be used to advocate for improved working conditions.

One demand from the labor movement was for an eight-hour workday — a big change at a time when workers were often required to undertake 12-hour shifts at factories. When legislation for an eight-hour workday passed in Illinois in 1867, 44 Chicago unions organized a parade on May 1 to celebrate the accomplishment.

Unfortunately, the 1867 law never went into effect, so workers had to keep pushing for their rights. On May 1, 1886, laborers in Chicago and other cities across the United States took part in a strike demanding an eight-hour workday.

Their actions continued past the first of May and began to get violent, culminating in a deadly conflict on May 4, known as the Haymarket Riot, which was followed by a controversial trial.

In 1889, those assembled at an International Socialist Conference in France named May 1 as a day for workers — believed by some to commemorate the events in Chicago.

Labor Day vs. May Day

Rear view of people with placards and posters at a rally.
Credit: Halfpoint/ Shuttestock

Whether or not they were influenced by American labor, protests were held across Europe on May 1, 1890. Going forward, European workers used the day for demonstrations and celebrations. Yet around the same time, the link between May Day and the labor movement was starting to come apart in the United States, and in 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed legislation for Labor Day to be celebrated on the first Monday in September.

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower tried to reinvent May Day as “Law Day” to celebrate the role law plays in society, and while it still exists, the holiday never really caught on.

Today, May Day is officially celebrated in 66 countries, and unofficially in many others, but ironically, not in the United States, where it originated. Around the world, some celebrate the public holiday with picnics and parties, while others use the occasion to attend demonstrations and rallies in support of workers.