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May Day: Home

Welcome to the LibGuide for May Day!

Why is International Workers' Day on May 1?

In the late-19th century, socialists, communists and trade unionists chose May 1 to become International Workers' Day.  The date was symbolic, commemorating the Haymarket affair, which took place in Chicago, in the US, in 1886.  

For years, the working class - often forced to work up to 16 hours a day in unsafe conditions - had been fighting for an eight-hour workday.  Then, in October 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labour Unions of the United States and Canada decided that May 1, 1886, would mark the first day that an eight-hour workday would go into effect.  

When that day arrived, between 300,000 and a half-million American workers went on strike in cities and towns across the country, according to various historians' estimates.  Chicago, which was the nucleus of the struggle, saw an estimated 40,000 people protest and strike. 

"May Labour Day: What is International Workers' Day."  Al Jazeera.  Al Jazeera Media Network, 1 May 2017. Web. 1 May 2017      

Explore this LibGuide to learn more about the history and origin of May Day from its roots in ancient England to its designation as International Workers' Day.    

May-Day Poem


by Ralph Waldo Emerson

DAUGHTER of Heaven and Earth, coy Spring,
With sudden passion languishing,
Maketh all things softly smile,
Painteth pictures mile on mile,
Holds a cup with cowslip-wreaths,
Whence a smokeless incense breathes.
Girls are peeling the sweet willow,
Poplar white, and Gilead-tree,
And troops of boys
Shouting with whoop and hilloa,
And hip, hip, three times three.

Click here to read the rest of the poem!

History of May Day in England

The roots of May Day go all the way back to the ancient world. For the Romans, the first of May stood at the heart of the Floralia, a weeklong festival to honor Flora, goddess of youth, spring, and flowers. When the Romans reached the British Isles, their Floralia festival collided with the Celtic holiday of Beltane, also held on May 1. Elements of both celebrations combined to lay the foundations for what became known as May Day—which, by the medieval period, had become a cherished holiday throughout Europe.

Every year, villagers would go "a-maying," venturing out in the early morning to collect flowers and decorate their town for the day's festivities. During the day, villages would hold a number of games, pageants, and dances, and many would crown a young woman "May Queen" to preside over the fun. At the heart of the festivities stood the maypole. Pulled into town by a pair of flower-adorned oxen, the pole (usually cut from a birch tree) was raised and decorated with colorful streamers that villagers could hold as they danced.

Grant, Jordan.  "May Day: America's traditional, radical, complicated holiday, Part 1."  American History.  Smithsonian, 29 April 2016.  Web. 1 May 2017.

Celebrating May Day in America

May Day initially received a chilly reception in colonial America. Puritan colonists in New England frowned on the spring holiday and its maypole, criticizing the latter as thinly veiled form of idolatry. When the Anglican merchant Thomas Morton erected a maypole on Merry Mount plantation in 1627, officials from the neighboring Puritan town broke up the celebration, chopped down the pole, and promptly sent the merchant back to England. 

Grant, Jordan.  "May Day: America's traditional, radical, complicated holiday, Part 1."  American History.  Smithsonian, 29 April 2016.  Web. 1 May 2017.

But the tradition of celebrating May Day by dancing and singing around a maypole, tied with colorful streamers or ribbons, survived as a part of the English tradition. The kids celebrating the day by moving back and forth around the pole with the streamers, choosing of May queen, and hanging of May baskets on the doorknobs of folks -- are all the leftovers of the old European traditions.

"History and Origin of May Day."  The Holiday Spot.  Web. 1 May 2017