May Day


May the first has often been a date of celebration beginning in Pagan times to commemorate the beginning of spring, rebirth and fertility. As Christianity spread and its saintly cannon grew, May 1st became the feast day of St. Joseph the Worker, the patron saint of workers. Now it has become a day for workers’ rights protests around the world. The modern side of May Day began with the Haymarket Square Riot in Chicago on May 4th, 1886. During a labor demonstration calling for an eight-hour workday, someone in the crowd threw a bomb at the police who returned fire on the crowd. At least eight people died as a result of the Haymarket Square violence. Eight protestors were convicted of the bombing despite a lack of evidence against them. They became martyrs for the labor movement, the only positive side of what many viewed as a set back for workers’ rights in the US.

Although the modern May Day activities began because of events in Chicago, wide-spread activism fell out of favor during the Cold War due to its association with the USSR, communism and the Far Left. President Eisenhower declared the day to be known as Law Day in the US in order to increase awareness of the merits of America’s legal system. In the 1920s, the day was used to celebrate patriotism and loyalty to the US. Neither of these days are considered official public holidays, so schools, banks and federal buildings remain open.

In July 1889 the Second International, an international association of socialist parties and trade unions, officially declared May Day an international working class holiday. Beginning in 1890 and spreading around the world – reaching Russia in 1891, China in 1920 and India in 1927 – May First has been a commemoration of the events in Chicago and an opportunity to call for further labor reforms and is a public holiday in most countries.

Even in countries that have now adopted the modern meaning of the holiday, traditional events and celebrations still take place. As a kid growing up in Nottingham, England, I have many fond memories of visiting the county fairground on May Day. There was often more going on, but I remember happily dancing round the Maypole with my friends tightly clutching a colorful piece of string and getting dizzier with every circuit. The Maypole is a carry over from Roman times when Rome’s citizens would go out into the woods, cut down a tree, and decorate it with flowers and ribbons in honor of their goddess Flora, goddess of flowers and the spring. For a brief time, during the Interregnum, when Oliver Cromwell was in power the May Day celebration was banned, but it returned with the restoration of Charles II in 1660.


The other – and to my childhood mind, less important – trappings of the holiday included Morris dancing and Jack in the green. Morris dancing is an English folk dance usually involving six to eight people interacting with each other. Some variations of Morris dancing can include handkerchiefs, wooden sticks and swords. The Jack in the green is someone dressed head-to-foot in flowers, sprigs and garlands on a conical frame and who looks like topiary. The Jack of the green often parades through the town with other revelers. This began as a way for chimney sweeps, who created the elaborate costume, and milk maids, who create individual displays of spring involving conical hats of silver and flowers, to raise money. As May First is the beginning of spring, it is also the end of a chimney sweeps employment as few houses will be lighting a blaze through the summer months.

Certain cities in the United Kingdom have their own May Day traditions; the most famous of these is Magdalen College bells that toll across Oxford at dawn on May First, known in the city as May Morning. Many Oxford students go out May Day eve and continue reveling to dawn as they wait to hear the Magdalen College bells and choir. This can be seen and heard here.

Learn More:

May Day Around the World (The Atlantic)

May Day Demonstrations and Celebrations Around the World (The Telegraph)

May Day Is Not About Maypoles: The History of International Workers’ Day (The Guardian)

Jack-in-the-Green (Hastings Traditional)

Law Day in the United States (Time and Date)

Loyalty Day in the United States (Time and Date)

The Brief Origins of May Day (Industrial Workers of the World)

Glossary of Events – May Day (

By Elizabeth Martinson, World Affairs Council Intern


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