May Day: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

may day history

Socialists rally on May Day in 1912. (Wikimedia)

May 1 marks May Day, the international labor holiday that, for over a century, has allowed laborers, union members, socialists, and other radicals to take to the streets and be noticed. The holiday is usually celebrated with protests, strikes, marches, and demonstrations, and 2014 will be no exception.

Here is what you need to know about the history of May Day:

1. May 1 Was Chosen to Remember the Haymarket Affair


The 1886 Haymarket Affair. (WikiMedia)

On May 1-3, 1886, around 250,000 workers in Chicago took to the streets to protest long working hours in hopes of limiting work days in the factories to 8 hours. Although it was a peaceful protest, police fired on the crowd killing two workers.

The next day a huge rally to protest the police brutality took place at Haymarket Square in Chicago. At just around 10:30 a.m. as a line of police advanced on the rally, someone threw a bomb at the officers, killing one and wounding 6 more. That was when police open fired, killing four demonstrators and injuring dozens more.

May Day become a holiday the following year to remember the victims who died while protesting for fair and humane working conditions.

2. It Became An International Labor Holiday

Fidel Castro and Cuba's Mayday CelebrationsVideographer Kenny Snodgrass, Activist, Author of From Victimization To Empowerment… Every year Cuba carries out its Mayday Celebration, where hundreds of people come from all around the world to participant. Including up to a million Cuban who take part in this annual celebration. President Fidel Castro always attends with CTC head Pedro Ross making…2011-02-14T19:30:22.000Z

Following the 1886 incident, May Day became an international holiday celebrate by workers and radicals across the world. May Day held particular significance in socialist countries like the Soviet Union and, after 1959, Cuba, who commemorated the day with large parades. In fact, it was not until May Day 1961 that Fidel Castro officially declared that Cuba would be a socialist country.

Workers around the world still celebrate the holiday with marches and protests. Above you can watch a video of how Cuba celebrates May Day.

3. On May Day 1919, Anarchist Bombs Were Planned to Go Off Across the Country

anarchist bombing

Luigi Galleani (WikiMedia)

Between April and June of 1919, bombs were sent by radical anarchists to important industrial and elected officials across the country. At least 36 explosive packages, planned to go off around May Day, were sent to the governors of Pennsylvania, and Mississippi, congressmen and senators from Utah, North Carolina, Washington, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Alabama, as well as John D. Rockefeller and J.P Morgan Jr., were mailed off with only 12 ultimately being recovered.

Many of the bombs, including the one which exploded on Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s front porch, found the targets.

4. The Government Tried to Make it ‘Loyalty Day’

red scare

From the New York Times, June, 1919.

In 1921, at a time when the U.S. government was most afraid of violent working-class uprisings, the U.S. government declared May 1 “Loyalty Day.” The holiday did not become an official U.S. holiday until the second red scare when Dwight Eisenhower proclaimed that May 1, 1959 would be the first official Loyalty Day.

According to the legislation, the purpose of Loyalty Day is to:

Loyalty Day is a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.

5. ‘May Day’ Is Also a Day About Summer & Fertility



May Day is also a much more ancient holiday that celebrates the start of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. The holiday, rooted in Celtic tradition, is about celebrating fertility, summer, and the blooming of flowers.

In ancient times, people celebrating would dance around a May pole which represents circling around fire or the sun. The pole itself is a stand in as a phallic symbol in the fertility ritual.