History of May Day


May Day is many things to many people. Etymologically, it is a homophone (same sounding word) for the international call for help. It is a corruption of the French imperative “M’aidez,” meaning “Help me!” It is a holiday claimed by many.


May Day as a Pagan Holiday

It is known in the pagan world as Beltane, a fertility celebration, one of the four high holidays in the pagan and neo-pagan calendar; Samhain on October 31 is another. Beltane is the day of fire commemorating Bel or Belenos, the Celtic sun god. Indeed, in the modern Irish language, Bealtaine is the name for May.


The early Anglo-Saxons began their celebration on the eve before, feasting the end of winter and the first planting. It was a time of revelry and abandon with the selection of a “May Queen” and the ribbons of the Maypole.

Note the song by Guenevere from the musical Camelot:

“Tra la! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!
That lovely month when ev’ryone goes 
Blissfully astray.”

But this day’s celebration of the revival of vegetation goes back to the Roman practice of visiting the grotto of Egena. The people of ancient Rome honored Flora, the goddess of flowers and springtime.


May Day as Worker’s Day

International Workers DayIn 1886, it was co-opted as an international workers’ day, sometimes called Labour Day, to celebrate the 8-hour workday movement following national strikes in the U.S. and Canada. The May 1 date commemorated the Haymarket affair in Chicago on May 4, 1886. Later, the French declared May 1 the International Working Men’s Association holiday in 1889.

Most countries that observe this day do it on May 1. The U.S. and Canada observe Labor/Labour Day on the first Monday in September as a 3-day weekend. Historically, it has been promoted by alternatively the International Labour Movement, Anarchists, Socialists, and Communists. Some countries consider May Day a bank holiday. This “Labor Day” is on one of the non-holy days in the calendar.


May Day as a Day of Prayer

National Day of PrayerMay 1st often marks the National Day of Prayer in the U.S., though this year, it falls on May 2. This day of non-sectarian prayer is observed on different days during the first week of May. It goes back to 1775 when the Continental Congress “designated a time for prayer in forming a new nation.”

President Lincoln proclaimed a day of “humiliation, fasting, and prayer” in 1863. In 1952, a joint resolution by Congress, signed by President Truman, declared an annual national day of prayer. In 1988, President Reagan amended and signed the law, permanently setting the day as the first Thursday of every May.

May Day is a pagan festival, a labor day, or a day of prayer. It is many things to many people.


How will you observe May Day?


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.


  1. Samantha on May 1, 2011 at 2:25 am

    Good site.

  2. Michelle on April 27, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    Thank you so much for such a well written, thouroughly researched blurb on the history of May Day. I usually like to put something together to celebrate certain special days and normally it is a cut and paste montage of information from different sources but i must say that you’ve done the job for me!

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