International Workers’ Day, known also as Labour Day, is the holiday which is commonly associated with a commemoration of the achievements of the labour movement in Chicago on 4 May 1886. The 1st May date is used because in 1884 the American Federation of Organized Traders and Labor Unions demanded an eight-hour workday, to come in effect as of 1 May 1886.
May Day is a traditional European spring celebration. It is a national public holiday in many countries, but only in some countries is it specifically celebrated as “Labour Day” or “International Workers’ Day”.
During Roman times, 1 May was seen as a key time to celebrate fertility and the arrival of spring. The Roman festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers and the season of spring, was held between 28 April and 3 May.
Why is May Day Celebrated?
International Labour Day, or May Day, is celebrated to recognise the fight for an eight-hour work day. In the 19th century working conditions of the labourer were harsh and working hours could be as many as 16 a day in sometimes unsafe conditions. Deaths, injuries and unhealthy and unsanitary conditions were common at the workplace during the 1860s and working people were disgruntled.
After much effort from workers, unions and socialists, eight hours was declared as the maximum daily legal time for workers by the American Federation of Labor at the national convention at Chicago in 1884.
Many people sacrificed their lives during what came to be known as the Haymarket Massacre, a protest held in Chicago during the workers’ strike of 1884. May Day is celebrated to recognise those who campaigned, in memory of those killed, and to promote the social and economic achievements of working people.
International Workers Day in Europe
In the United Kingdom and Ireland the bank holiday is not fixed as May 1st but is observed on the first Monday of May.
A key May Day celebration in Italy is the the annual Concerto del Primo Maggio which takes place in Rome and is attended by more than half a million people.
In Sweden May day is also a Christian celebration; the Mass of Saint Walburga or Walpurgis Night is celebrated on the evening of 30 April.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia most people celebrate the holiday by visiting natural parks and resorts. In some places public events are also organised.
In Switzerland Labour Day is a holiday in the following 11 cantons: Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Basel-Landschaft, Basel-Stadt, Fribourg, Jura, Neuchâtel, Schaffhausen, Solothurn, Thurgau, Ticino and Zurich. The status of the holiday may vary between the cantons, for instance in Solothurn it is a holiday in the afternoon.
Demonstrations and marches are a Labour Day tradition in France where trade unions organise parades in major cities to defend workers’ rights. It is also customary to offer a lily of the valley flower to friends or family.
In Greece 1 May is an optional public holiday. The Ministry of Labour retains the right to classify it as an official public holiday on an annual basis, and it customarily does so.
May Day was celebrated illegally in Russia until the February Revolution enabled the first legal celebration in 1917. It became an important official holiday of the Soviet Union, celebrated with an elaborate popular parade in the centre of the major cities. Since 1992 May Day is officially called “The Day of Spring and Labour”.