May Day

May Day
Maibaum in Ellbach
Maibaum in Munich, Germany.

May Day on May 1 is an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival and usually a public holiday; [1] it is also a traditional spring holiday in many cultures.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, May Day has also become synonymous with International Workers' Day, or Labour Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organised by communists, anarchists, socialists, unionists, and other groups.


Traditional May Day celebrations

May Day is related to the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night. May Day falls exactly half a year from November 1, another cross-quarter day which is also associated with various northern European pagan and neopagan festivals such as Samhain. May Day marks the end of the unfarmable winter half of the year in the Northern hemisphere, and it has traditionally been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations. As Europe became Christianized the pagan holidays lost their religious character and either changed into popular secular celebrations, as with May Day, or were merged with or replaced by new Christian holidays as with Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and All Saint's Day. In the twentieth century, many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival again.


The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman Goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane. Many pagan celebrations were abandoned or Christianized during the process of conversion in Europe. A more secular version of May Day continues to be observed in Europe and America. In this form, May Day may be best known for its tradition of dancing the maypole dance and crowning of the Queen of the May. Various Neopagan groups celebrate reconstructed (to varying degrees) versions of these customs on May 1st.

The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of Spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer. In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is observed as Mary's month, and in these circles May Day is usually a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this connection, in works of art, school skits, and so forth, Mary's head will often be adorned with flowers in a May crowning. Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of "May baskets," small baskets of sweets and/or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbours' doorsteps.[2]


Great Britain

Roodmas was a Christian Mass celebrated in England at midnight on May 1.

May Queen on village green, Melmerby

Traditional British May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a Maypole. Much of this tradition derive from the pagan Anglo-Saxon and customs held during "Þrimilci-mōnaþ"[3] (the Old English name for the month of May meaning Month of Three Milkings) along with many Celtic traditions.

May hi som, the flower of the May tree

May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. May Day is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. Since May 1st is the Feast of St Philip & St James, they became the patron saints of workers. Seeding has been completed by this date and it was convenient to give farm labourers a day off. Perhaps the most significant of the traditions is the Maypole, around which traditional dancers circle with ribbons.

The May Day bank holiday, on the first Monday in May, was traditionally the only one to affect the state school calendar, although new arrangements in some areas to even out the length of school terms mean that the Good Friday and Easter Monday bank holidays, which vary from year to year, may also fall during term time. The May Day bank holiday was created in 1978. In February 2011, the UK Parliament was reported to be considering scrapping the bank holiday associated with May Day, replacing it with a bank holiday in October, possibly co-inciding with Trafalgar Day (celebrated on 21 October), to create a "United Kingdom Day".[4]

May Day was abolished and its celebration banned by puritan parliaments during the Interregnum, but reinstated with the restoration of Charles II in 1660.[5] 1 May 1707 was the day the Act of Union came into effect, joining England and Scotland to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.

Queen Guinevere's Maying For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might,

In Oxford, it is traditional for May Morning revellers to gather below the Great Tower of Magdalen College at 6:00 am to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals as a conclusion to the previous night's celebrations. It is then thought to be traditional for some people to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell. However this has actually only been fashionable since the 1970s. In recent years, the bridge has been closed on 1 May to prevent people from jumping, as the water under the bridge is only 2 feet (61 cm) deep and jumping from the bridge has resulted in serious injury in the past. There are still people who insist on climbing the barriers and leaping into the water, causing themselves injury.[7]

In Durham, students of the University of Durham gather on Prebend's Bridge to see the sunrise and enjoy festivities, folk music, dancing, madrigal singing and a barbecue breakfast. This is an emerging Durham tradition, with patchy observance since 2002.

Whitstable, Kent, hosts a good example of more traditional May Day festivities, where the Jack in the Green festival was revived in 1976 and continues to lead an annual procession of morris dancers through the town on the May Bank Holiday. A separate revival occurred in Hastings in 1983 and has become a major event in the town calendar. A traditional Sweeps Festival is performed over the May bank holiday in Rochester, Kent, where the Jack In the Green is woken at dawn on the 1st of May by Morris dancers.

Morris dancing on May Day in Oxford, England 2004.

At 7:15 p.m. on 1 May each year, the Kettle Bridge Clogs [8] morris dancing side dance across Barming Bridge (otherwise known as the Kettle Bridge), which spans the River Medway near Maidstone, to mark the official start of their morris dancing season.

The Maydayrun involves thousands of motorbikes taking a 55-mile (89 km) trip from London(Locksbottom) to the Hastings seafront, East Sussex. The event has been taking place for almost 30 years now and has grown in interest from around the country, both commercially and publicly. The event is not officially organised; the police only manage the traffic, and volunteers manage the parking.

Padstow in Cornwall holds its annual 'Obby-Oss' (Hobby Horse) day of festivities. This is believed to be one of the oldest fertility rites in the UK; revellers dance with the Oss through the streets of the town and even through the private gardens of the citizens, accompanied by accordion players and followers dressed in white with red or blue sashes who sing the traditional 'May Day' song. The whole town is decorated with springtime greenery, and every year thousands of onlookers attend. Prior to the 19th century distinctive May day celebrations were widespread throughout West Cornwall , and are being revived in St. Ives and Penzance.

Kingsand, Cawsand and Millbrook in Cornwall celebrate Flower Boat Ritual on the May Day bank holiday. A model of the ship The Black Prince is covered in flowers and is taken in procession from the Quay at Millbrook to the beach at Cawsand where it is cast adrift. The houses in the villages are decorated with flowers and people traditionally wear red and white clothes. There are further celebrations in Cawsand Square with Morris dancing and May pole dancing.

In St Andrews, some of the students gather on the beach late on April 30 and run into the North Sea at sunrise on May Day, occasionally naked. This is accompanied by torchlit processions and much elated celebration.

Both Edinburgh and Glasgow organize Mayday festivals and rallies. In Edinburgh, the Beltane Fire Festival is held on the evening of May eve and into the early hours of May Day on the city's Calton Hill. An older Edinburgh tradition has it that young women who climb Arthur's Seat and wash their faces in the morning dew will have lifelong beauty.


May Day has been celebrated in Ireland since pagan times as the feast of Bealtaine and in latter times as Mary's day. Traditionally, bonfires were lit to mark the coming of summer and to banish the long nights of winter. Officially Irish May Day bank holiday is now on the first Monday in May. In modern times May Day is associated with anti-government rallies which are held every year on this date. Old traditions such as bonfires are no longer held.


On May 1, 1561, King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. He decided to offer a lily of the valley each year to the ladies of the court. At the beginning of the 20th century, it became custom to give a sprig of lily of the valley, a symbol of springtime, on May 1. The government permits individuals and workers' organisations to sell them tax-free. It is also traditional for the lady receiving the sprig of lily of the valley to give a kiss in return. Nowadays, people may present loved ones either with bunches of lily of the valley or dog rose flowers.[9]


In rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the wrapping of a Maibaum (maypole). Young people use this opportunity to party, while the day itself is used by many families to get some fresh air. Motto: "Tanz in den Mai!" ("Dance into May!"). In the Rhineland, May 1 is also celebrated by the delivery of a maypole, a tree covered in streamers to the house of a girl the night before. The tree is typically from a love interest, though a tree wrapped only in white streamers is a sign of dislike. Females usually place roses or rice in form of a heart at the house of their beloved one. It is common to stick the heart to a window or place it in front of the doormat. On leap years, it is the responsibility of the females to place the maypole, though the males are still allowed and encouraged to do so. All the action is usually done secretly and it is an individual's choice whether to give a hint of their identity or stay anonymous.


Celebrations among the younger generations take place on May Day Eve, see Walpurgis Night in Finland), most prominent being the afternoon 'crowning' of statues in towns around the country with a student cap.

May Day is known as Vappu, from the Swedish term. This is a public holiday that is the only carnival-style street festivity in the country. People young and old, particularly students, party outside, picnic and wear caps or other decorative clothing.


The more traditional festivities have moved to the day before, "Last of April" ("Sista april") or "Walpurgis nacht" ("Valborgsmässoafton").

Pacific (USA)

In Hawaii, May Day is also known as Lei Day, and is normally set aside as a day to celebrate island culture in general and native Hawaiian culture in particular. Invented by a poet and a local newspaper columnist in the 1920s, it has since been adopted by state and local government as well as the residents, and has taken on the sense of a general spring celebration. The first Lei Day was proposed in 1927 in Honolulu. Leonard "Red" and Ruth Hawk composed "May Day is Lei Day in Hawai'i," the traditional holiday song. Originally it was a contemporary fox trot, later rearranged as the Hawaiian hula song performed today.

United States of America

May Day festivities at National Park Seminary in Maryland, 1907.
Crowd gathered in Union Square, New York City during the May Day parade, May 1, 1913. Signs in Yiddish, Italian and English

May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. In some parts of the United States, May Baskets are made. These are small baskets usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone's doorstep. The giver would ring the bell and run away. The person receiving the basket would try to catch the fleeing giver. If they caught the person, a kiss was to be exchanged.[citation needed]

Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. vary greatly from region to region and many unite both the holiday's "Green Root" (pagan) and "Red Root" (labor) traditions.[10] Among the largest is the May Day Parade and Pageant created by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, an event that has happened every year since 1975 in Minneapolis and now attracts some 35,000 people.

May 1 is also recognized in the U.S. as Law Day.[11]

International Workers' Day

A stamp from East Germany celebrating the 100-year anniversary of International Workers Day on 1 May 1990.
Russian (Soviet era) poster for the 1st of May, 1920

May Day can refer to various labour celebrations conducted on May 1 that commemorate the fight for the eight hour day. May Day in this regard is called International Workers' Day, or Labour Day. The idea for a "workers' holiday" began in Australia in 1856; after a stonemason's victory in securing improved employee rights, April 22nd was declared "Eight-Hour Day", a public holiday.[12][13] With the idea having spread around the world, the choice of May 1st became a commemoration by the socialist Second International for the people involved in the 1886 Haymarket affair.[14]

United States of America

The Haymarket affair occurred during the course of a three-day general strike in Chicago, Illinois, United States that involved common laborers, artisans, merchants, and immigrants.[15] Following an incident in which police opened fire and killed four strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. plant, a rally was called for the following day at Haymarket Square. Towards the end of the rally, as police moved in to disperse the event and opened fire on the unarmed crowd on the plea that an unknown assailant threw a bomb into the crowd of police. The bomb and resulting police riot left at least a dozen people dead, including one policeman.[16] A sensational show trial ensued in which eight defendants were openly tried for their political beliefs, and not necessarily for any involvement in the bombing.[17] The trial led to the eventual public hanging of four anarchists.[18] The Haymarket incident was a source of outrage from people around the globe. In the following years, memory of the "Haymarket martyrs" was remembered with various May Day job actions and demonstrations.[19]

May Day has become an international celebration of the social and economic achievements of the labour movement. Although the commemoration of May Day as International Workers' Day received its inspiration from the United States, the U.S. Congress designated May 1 as Loyalty Day in 1958 due to the day's perceived appropriation by the Soviet Union.[20] Alternatively, Labor Day traditionally occurs on the first Monday in September in the United States. People often use May Day as a day for political protest, such as the million people who demonstrated against far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in France in 2002, or as a day for protest against government actions, such as rallies in support of undocumented workers across the United States.[21][22][23]



Bangladesh celebrates May Day as International Workers' Day. It is a public holiday.


Turkey celebrates May Day (Turkish: 1 Mayıs Günü) as Workers' Day in Taksim Square in İstanbul and other squares in many other cities throughout the country. It is a national holiday.


The People's Republic of China celebrates International Workers' Day on May 1 and is designated as a public holiday. In Hong Kong, the holiday is referred to as Labour Day.


Syria celebrates Labor Day on May 1 and has designated this day (or the closest working day) a national holiday.


The Republic of China (Taiwan) celebrates Labor Day on May 1 and has designated this day (or the closest working day) a public holiday.


May 1 is celebrated as Maharashtra Day in Maharashtra[24] and Gujarat Day in Gujarat,[25] two states on the western coast of India. Both attained statehood on the 1st of May 1960 when the State of Bombay was divided in two under the Saurashtra re-organization act. The division was made on the basis of different languages; Marathi and Gujarati. Maharashtra retained the old capital Bombay, later renamed Mumbai. The rest of India celebrates May Day as International Workers' Day: it is a public holiday in India.


Approximately 700,000 people at a May Day concert in Rome.[26]


Labor Day in Portugal.

In Portugal, it has only been possible to freely celebrate May Day since May 1974 (the year of the revolution of April 25) when it became a holiday. During the dictatorship of the Estado Novo, attempts to celebrate this day were broken up by police. The World Day of Workers is now celebrated throughout the country, especially with demonstrations, rallies and celebrations promoted by the Inter-Union Federation CGT (General Confederation of Portuguese Workers) in the main cities of Lisbon and Porto, as well as by the trade union confederation UGT (General Workers' Union). In the Algarve, it is customary to socialise and picnics are organized. Significantly, since the government of José Sócrates has approved a new law allowing shops to open on Sundays, Portuguese workers again have forced to work on May 1, Sundays and other holidays, including Easter Sunday.


May Day (Bulgarian: Ден на труда, Den na truda (Labor Day) is an official holiday in Bulgaria. It was declared a public holiday in 1939.


Political organizations, including both right and left wing parties, arrange marches, speeches and such public events.


Mayday is denoted "First of May" ("Første mai"in Norwegian) and has been a public holiday in Norway since 1947. In the beginning, it was mostly the Social Democratic Party and the Labour Union (LO) that celebrated this day. Nowadays, parties, unions and other leftist organizations mark the day. Ususally one demonstration is held in every city and town, with all the different organizations participating.


Mayday is denoted "First of May" ("Första maj" in Swedish) and has been a public holiday in Sweden since 1939. The main events on Mayday are political demonstrations by labour organisations and political parties historically associated with the working class movement.



In Brazil, the date has been celebrated since 1895 and became a national holiday in September 1925 by a decree of President Arthur Bernardes. Until the beginning of President Vargas' era (1930–1945) colleges of certain types of factory workers were quite common, though not very strong given the lack of industrialization. This movement was at first characterized by the influence of anarchism and later communism, but with the coming to power of Getulio Varga, it gradually dissolved and urban workers began to be influenced by what became known as Labour.

Until then, Labor Day was considered by those earlier movements (anarchists and communists) as a time to protest and criticise the socio-economic structures of the country. Vargas subtly turned a day intended to celebrate the worker into Labor Day. This change, apparently superficial, profoundly altered the worker's annual activities on this day. Until then marked by pickets and demonstrations, Labor Day is now celebrated with festivals, parades and celebrations. This change has even been assimilated by the trade union movement. Traditionally the Union Force (an organization that brings together trade unions from different areas, linked to political parties such as PDT) organises concerts with big names in popular music and sweepstakes of home ownership.

It has become customary on Labor Day in Brazil for governments to announce the annual increase in the minimum wage. Another historically very important aspect of the day was the creation of the Consolidation of Labour Laws (CLT). This was created on May 1, 1943 and signed by President Getúlio Vargas during the Estado Novo, unifying all labor laws then existing in Brazil. It became the main piece of legislation relating to Brazilian labor law.

See also


  1. ^ Anthony Aveni, "May Day: A Collision of Forces," The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 79-89.
  2. ^ Charming May Day Baskets
  3. ^ Caput XV: De mensibus Anglorum from De mensibus Anglorum. Available online: [1]
  4. ^ Polly Curtis (4 February 2011). "Mayday for May Day: bank holiday may move to 'best of British' October slot". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 February 2011. 
  5. ^ Hutton, Ronald (1996). The rise and fall of Merry England (New ed. ed.). Oxford: Oxford university press. pp. 27–8. ISBN 019285447X. 
  6. ^ Idylls of the King : Guinevere, Alfred Lord Tennyson 1859
  7. ^ May Day revellers party on bridge
  8. ^ Kettle Bridge Clogs
  9. ^ May Day in France
  10. ^ Colleen J. Sheehy (Ed.), Theatre of Wonder: 25 Years in the Heart of the Beast (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 79-89.
  11. ^ "The Rule of Law" American Bar Association
  12. ^ Bliss, William Dwight Porter (1909). The new encyclopedia of social reform. 1. Funk & Wagnalls. pp. 77. 
  13. ^ Journeymen Stone Cutters' Association of North America (1922). The Stone cutters' journal (Journeymen Stone Cutters Association of North America) 37-39: 18. 
  14. ^ What Are the Origins of May Day?, Rosa Luxemburg, Sprawa Robotnicza, 1894
  15. ^ Green, James (2007). "A Storm of Strikes". Death In the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. Anchor. p. 163. ISBN 1400033225. 
  16. ^ Green, James (2007). "Prologue". Death In the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. Anchor. p. 10. ISBN 1400033225. 
  17. ^ Green, James (2007). "Every Man on the Jury Was an American". Death In the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. Anchor. pp. 209–230. ISBN 1400033225. 
  18. ^ Green, James (2007). "You Are Being Weighed in the Balance". Death In the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. Anchor. p. 231. ISBN 1400033225. 
  19. ^ Green, James (2007). "Prologue". Death In the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. Anchor. p. 305. ISBN 1400033225. 
  20. ^ Roots of May Day are in Chicago
  21. ^ Anti-Le Pen Protests Draw a Million Into Streets of France
  22. ^ Business joins May Day reform cry in L.A.
  23. ^ May Day is rally day in Seattle
  24. ^ "Hoteliers in Mumbai threaten to go on strike". Times of India. April 16, 2006. Retrieved January 27, 2011. 
  25. ^ Kapil Dave (March 20, 2009). "LS polls dampen 49th Gujarat Day celebrations". Daily News and Analysis. Retrieved January 27, 2011. 
  26. ^ Concert a Roma, Repubblica

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • May Day — May May, n. [F. Mai, L. Maius; so named in honor of the goddess Maia (Gr. Mai^a), daughter of Atlas and mother of Mercury by Jupiter.] 1. The fifth month of the year, containing thirty one days. Chaucer. [1913 Webster] 2. The early part or… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • May|day — May Day, the first day of May, often celebrated by crowning a girl honored as the queen of May, dancing around the Maypole, and other festivities. In some parts of the world, labor parades and meetings are held on May Day. May|day «MAY DAY», noun …   Useful english dictionary

  • May Day — n [U and C] the first day of May, when ↑left wing political parties in some countries celebrate, and when people traditionally celebrate the arrival of spring …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • May Day — May′ Day n. the first day of May variously celebrated with festivities and observances • Etymology: 1225–75 …   From formal English to slang

  • May Day — ► NOUN ▪ 1 May, celebrated as a springtime festival or as a day honouring workers …   English terms dictionary

  • May Day — first of May, mid 15c. Accounts of merrymaking on this date are attested from mid 13c. Synonymous with communist procession from at least 1906. The May Queen seems to be a Victorian re invented tradition …   Etymology dictionary

  • May Day — n. May 1: as a traditional spring festival, often celebrated by dancing around a maypole, crowning a May queen, etc.; as a more recent international labor holiday, observed in many countries by parades, demonstrations, etc …   English World dictionary

  • May Day — May ,Day noun count or uncount May 1st, when people traditionally celebrated the beginning of spring. Many countries have a public holiday on or near this date, in honor of working people …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • May Day — noun observed in many countries to celebrate the coming of spring; observed in Russia and related countries in honor of labor (Freq. 1) • Syn: ↑First of May, ↑May 1 • Hypernyms: ↑day • Part Holonyms: ↑May * * * …   Useful english dictionary

  • May Day — the first day of May, long celebrated with various festivities, as the crowning of the May queen, dancing around the Maypole, and, in recent years, often marked by labor parades and political demonstrations. [1225 75; ME] * * * In Europe, the day …   Universalium

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