May Day, Worker’s Day, and Labor Day

The first day of May has significance across the globe. Over 50 countries have national Labor Days relating to the labor movements and most of them include a day off from work.

Now, as an American, I know what you might be thinking. Clearly, Labor Day is on the first Monday of September, not May. Well, yes, you’re right. In the United States our efforts to officially switch Labor Day to the international standard of May 1st have failed. Well, the first of May has its own significance and history in our culture. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, May 1st became known as Americanization Day in opposition to communists by our very own Veterans of Foreign Wars. While Americanization Day was renamed to Loyalty Day in 1949, it wasn’t until 1958 that the U.S. Congress made it a national holiday. Also, in the same year, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed it to be Law Day as well.

The primary reason that we don’t celebrate Labor Day in May with the rest of the world is directly related to its origin. In 1886 there was a peaceful rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago. The rally was in support of workers who were striking for an eight-hour work day. When the police came to disperse the gathering, however, an unknown individual threw a dynamite bomb into the group of officers. The blast, coupled with the subsequent gunfire, caused the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians, not to mention the dozens of wounded. President Grover Cleveland was worried that commemorating Labor Day on the first of May would be an opportunity to commemorate the riots. Instead, he decided to support the 1887 parade in New York City, organized by the Knights of Labor, as America’s official Labor Day.

However, the first of May has been a celebratory day since long before 1886. It is also known as an ancient spring festival in Europe, called May Day. While the details of the celebrations varied across Europe, there were some definite similarities. The most well-known of these is the Maypole. Sometimes the maypole was a permanent feature that was only utilized during the festival, but other times it was erected specifically for the festival. Certain age groups would dance around this pole to celebrate youth and the bountiful spring season. Another key feature was the May Queen. The May Queen, or Queen of the May, is a girl who must ride or walk at the front of the parade. Generally she wears a white gown, symbolizing purity, and a tiara or a crown. She usually gives a speech and is responsible for officially initiating the festivities.

While the day has a slightly different significance in countries around the world, the first of May is a special day of varying degrees in all of them. So, while you may be slaving away at your nine to five today, remember that a lot of people went through a lot of effort and sacrificed a great many things for you to be able to leave after an eight-hour day.

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