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May Day

See: Mayday for the distress signal

May Day is a name for various holidays celebrated on May 1 (or in the beginning of May).


Labour association

The holiday is most often associated with the commemoration of the social and economic achievements of the labor movement. The May 1st date is used because in 1884 the American Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions demanded an eight-hour workday, to come in effect as of May 1, 1886. This resulted in the general strike and the Haymarket Riot of 1886, but eventually also in the official sanction of the eight-hour workday.

May Day is celebrated as Labour Day in most countries around the world, including the United Kingdom where the bank holiday isn't fixed at May 1st but instead the first Monday of May.

In the 20th century, the holiday received the official endorsement of the Soviet Union, and it is also celebrated as the Day of the International Solidarity of Workers. Celebrations in communist countries during the Cold War era often consisted of large military parades with the latest weaponry being exhibited as well as shows of common people in support of the government.

Curiously (given the origin of the May 1st date), the United States celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September; May 1st is Loyalty Day, a legal but not widely recognized holiday in the United States. There is some suggestion that the reason for this was to avoid the commemoration of riots that had occurred in 1886. The adoption of May Day by communists and socialists as their primary holiday further cemented official resistance to sanctioning May Day labor celebrations in America.

Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands also celebrate Labour Day on different dates; that has to do with how the holiday originated in those countries.

May Day has long been a focal point for demonstrations by various communist, socialist, and anarchist groups.

The Roman Catholic Church added another Saint Joseph's Day in 1955 that Christianized this holiday as the day of "Saint Joseph, the Worker".


May Day graffiti in Berlin. The text reads, "May 1st: Cars burn, bulls die". "Bullen" is a derogatory German term for the police approximately equivalent to "pigs" in English.
May Day graffiti in Berlin. The text reads, "May 1st: Cars burn, bulls die". "Bullen" is a derogatory German term for the police approximately equivalent to "pigs" in English.

Berlin, Germany traditionally has yearly demonstrations on May Day. There is little political or religious connection to the Walpurgisnacht celebrations that are traditional on the night before May Day in the Brocken mountains. The Berlin demonstrations became yearly riots in 1987. While left wing socialist groups still demonstrate on May Day as they always have, it has recently also become a focal point for the NPD (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschland), an extreme right wing nationalist party, and for Neo-Nazis. Some Burschenschaft (university fraternities) are also connected to the NPD. The NPDs most likely choose May 1st to demonstrate in order to antagonize the left wing socialists by appropriating their holiday. Streetfighting frequently occurs between the right wing Neo-Nazis and NPD and the strongly anti-Nazi and anti-nationalist left wing demonstrators, often associated with the punk rock subculture.

As the years went on, the Berlin May Day rioting has become less overtly political and more oriented towards generally destructive behavior by individuals with little interest in politics, though political demonstrators are still a factor.

Berlin rioters have been dealt with severely by police, though in recent years an official nonescalation policy was implemented, which seems to have reduced the overall level of May Day violence in Berlin.

Morris dancing on May Day, Oxford 2004
Morris dancing on May Day, Oxford 2004

English tradition

Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen, and dancing around a Maypole.


May Day also marks springtime celebrations such as:

These holidays were also respected by some early European settlers of the American continent.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 21:15:34
Last updated: 02-26-2005 12:57:45