What Exactly Is May Day Anyway?

You’ve heard of it, you know it takes place sometime in May, but other than that, you’re lost. Here’s everything you need to know about this holiday.

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April showers bring May flowers, as the saying goes. And with those flowers comes May Day, a holiday that most people have heard of but have no idea what it’s for.

When is May Day?

May Day is celebrated on May 1 every year.

What is May Day?

May Day is a celebration of the seasons changing as well as a day to celebrate workers’ rights.

How did May Day start?

May Day has its roots in ancient pagan festivals marking the beginning of summer. (For that reason, it’s primarily celebrated in the Northern Hemisphere.) Ancient Celts called it Beltaine, which is still celebrated today. Over the centuries, it evolved and took on a more secular nature in Europe, including the addition of maypole dances that the holiday is now associated with. Check out these 19 spectacular photos to celebrate the start of spring.

Why is May Day also a day for labor rights?

But May Day isn’t all about skipping around with ribbons in the sunshine. It has also been on the same day as International Workers’ Day since the 1880s. In fact, May Day is the equivalent of America’s Labor Day for certain countries.

On May 1, 1886, hundreds of thousands of U.S. industrial workers participated in a nationwide strike to demand an eight-hour workday. (At the time, it was common to work 10- to 16-hour days, according to Industrial Workers of the World.) The protests in Chicago lasted for several days, and on May 3, a strike at McCormick Reaper Works ended in a brawl with police officers. Several strikers were wounded or killed. These protests also changed the world for workers everywhere.

The next night, the violence became even worse. When police came to break up a crowd of protestors gathered in Haymarket Square, a bomb went off in the police ranks. The bomb killed seven policemen and wounded 60 more. Police then opened fire on the crowd, killing several men and wounding 200, TIME reported.

In commemoration of these events, now known as the Haymarket Affair, the International Socialist Conference declared May 1 as an international holiday for labor. That’s why the world sees not only celebrations of warmer weather on the first day of May, but oftentimes riots and marches for labor unions as well.

So no matter why you celebrate it, Happy May Day! Now that you can answer the question, “What is May Day?” when your colleagues ask, check out these weird holidays everyone should start celebrating.

Claire Nowak
Claire is a writer, editor and digital strategist with more than 10 years of experience reporting on facts, trivia and quotes. Her natural curiosity lends itself to stories on history, trivia and "Did you know?" curiosities, and her work has appeared in Taste of Home, The Family Handyman, The Healthy and iHeart Media. A former editor at Reader's Digest and proud Marquette University grad, she lives in Milwaukee with her fiancé and their corgi and enjoys binge-listening to true-crime podcasts.