Happy May Day: An overview around the world

Image by CUPE

While today, May 1st, is generally recognized worldwide as International Labour Day or Workers’ Day of International Unity and Solidarity, it has a long history of celebration in almost every county around the world that goes back to ancient Roman and Greek times.

In many countries, May 1st today has also been declared a national holiday and, on May 1, 1890, it was officially declared by the first International Congress of Socialist Parties in Europe.

Looking back to earlier times, Roman Catholics celebrated May Day in the 1700s with devotions to the Mother Mary and also the patron saint of workers, St. Joseph the Worker who was a carpenter.

Maypole of streamers

In Europe and North America, one of the long-standing traditions often associated with May Day is dancing around the maypole and the crowning of the Queen of May.  Another tradition that has long since gone by the wayside is the giving of May baskets of sweets or flowers that were left anonymously on neighbours’ doorsteps.

From the Czech Republic to Finland, Scotland to Germany and Hawaii to France, May Day is one of celebration with different meanings in each.

In the Czech Republic for instance, May Day is traditionally considered a holiday of love and May as a month of love. The celebrations of spring begin on April 30th when a maypole  is erected and bonfires are also lit on the same day.  The maypole remains until May 31st.

Germany has several celebrations, some of which have a pagan origin that includes again a maypole and bonfires the night before May 1st.  For the young, it has been a chance to party while May 1st itself is a family day and an opportunity to get out-of-doors.

In the Rhineland district, the maypole is again a tradition but with a difference.  It is often a trees covered in streamers and delivered to the home of a girl the night before.  While is is a sign of a love interest, if it is completely wrapped in white, it is. a sign of dislike.  Another tradition for women is to place roses or rice in the form of a heart at the house of their beloved one or stick the heart to a window or place it in front of the doormat.  All the action is usually done secretly and it is an individual’s choice whether to give a hint of their identity or stay anonymous.

May Day however, was not established as a public holiday until the Third Reich declared  May 1st as a “national workers’ day” in 1933.  As Labour Day, many political parties and unions host activities related to work and employment.

In Finland, April 30th leading into May 1st, known as Walpurgis, is one of the four biggest

Finland – Photo: Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva – For larger view Click on Image

holidays that includes Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Midsumer.  Walpurgis is a carnival festival and one of the biggest groups to celebrate is university engineering students and is traditionally considered an upper-class feast that includes low-alcohol mead and funnel cakes.

Poland has declared May 1st a state holiday with the celebration focused on Labour Day festivities that include labour activists and left-wing political parties organizing parades across the country.

Throughout England, Great Britain, there are several different types of celebrations in the many districts ranging from bike rides to picnics.

May Day has been celebrated in Scotland for centuries and was associated with the Beltane of Gaelic May Day festival.  Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.

May Day was once abolished and celebration banned by Puritan parliaments during the Restoration in the mid-1600s but was reinstated Charles II in 1660. On May 1st 1707, the Act of Union came into effect amalgamating the kingdoms of England, including Wales and Scotland to form Great Britain.

In the British Commonwealth however, the longest continually observed May Day that was originally held on May 4, 1870, is in New Westminster, British Columbia.

Floral Lei

Throughout the United States, there are a wide variety of festivities on May 1st.

As in other countries, May Day has many different names and, when it comes to the state of Hawaii, May Day is also known as Lei Day is a day to celebrate island culture in general and the culture of the Native Hawaiians in particular.  Lei Day was invented by poet and local newspaper columnist Don Blanding and was first celebrated on May 1st, 1927 in Honolulu.


Whether it’s International Workers Day or as a symbol of Spring, May 1st has long been a celebration throughout the centuries around the world.


An abridged history of May Day, May 1st from several sites including Wikipedia
by Sandy Lindsay