Labor Day and May Day: The Origin of Two Holidays

Labor Day

For many of us, Labor Day, which falls on the first Monday in September, means the end of summer vacation, a forceful ordainment not to wear white, and an excuse for department stores to have sales. Outside of North America, Labor Day falls on May 1, and the existence of two separate Labor Days can be a source of confusion for some. But as with all holidays, it’s important to keep in mind the history behind our happy day off, and remember that Labor Day is a celebration of laborers, introduced at a time when labor meant something far more grueling than it generally denotes today.

The first Labor Day celebration took place in NYC on September 5, 1882, when about 10,000 union workers marched in a parade to honor the American worker, who at the time were without the labor laws we now take for granted. This event was a catalyst that spread the Labor Day sentiment across America. Beginning with Oregon in 1887, a number of states adopted Labor Day as a legal holiday scheduled for the first Monday of September.

But the holiday did not remedy the labor situation in Industrial Revolution era America. In 1894 the entire railroad system was compromised by the strike and boycott against the Pullman Palace Car Company, a railroad company guilty of terrible treatment of their workers. In response to the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to take action, which escalated the violence and caused several deaths. It was in the midst of this strike that President Cleveland, in an effort to appease a livid public, passed a bill that made Labor Day a national holiday. Labor Day continues to this day, intended to be a reminder of the struggle of the labor workforce.

Elsewhere in the world, laborers are honored on May Day (May 1), also known as International Workers’ Day. This holiday was instituted by countries worldwide in response to the Haymarket Riot of 1886, a peaceful protest gone awry with another violent altercation against the Chicago workforce by the police. Although the events that instigated May Day took place in America, the United States did not adopt it as a legal holiday, and the countries that did celebrated the day in unique ways. May Day was particularly embraced in the Soviet Union and Eastern-bloc, but with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe the holiday has grown more and more removed from its violent origins. This is not unlike Labor Day in America, which is little remembered for the labor required to grant us this one day off.

Aside from eating the standard hot dog and taking a day off from your usual Monday laboring, what Labor Day traditions do you have?


  1. Rad Thomas -  September 8, 2015 - 6:32 am

    As with many of our Holidays, Mayday is a very old pagan festival (sic. Maypole Dancing), which have been adapted (or hijacked, depending on your point of view) to suit the modern world. Christmas used to be Yuletide and basically marks the winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere; Easter is named for Eostre (I am not sure of the spelling), a Celtic goddess.

    If you want a holiday, have a holiday whenever you like and call it what you will; why should I, or anyone else, be entitled to a view?

    • ANTHONY -  September 8, 2015 - 11:18 am


    • Fred -  September 11, 2015 - 11:05 am

      And I heard that it was named for Ishtar a fertility goddess, and that is why the symbols of Easter are eggs and rabbits, both symbols of reproduction and fertility.

    • jan -  September 12, 2015 - 4:52 pm

      I think we all are “entitled to a view” – but we don’t necessarily have to follow the mores of others. On Labor Day we always enjoyed a large group picnic with BBQing, etc….. Fun times together and remembered and enjoyed years later.

    • Wyy -  September 25, 2015 - 8:59 am

      Because knowing the origin of a what your celebrating could save you. Most holiday origins were brutal and believe it or not many people still practiced the ancient way of holiday true origin.

  2. fred liquorbum -  September 7, 2015 - 7:39 am

    Interesting that most workers at or near the bottom of their respective field’s pay scale do not have the first Monday in September off from work.

  3. Robin des bois -  September 7, 2015 - 2:25 am

    In Great Britain, people celebrate Labour Day (on the first Monday in May) by spelling it with a ‘u’ between the ‘o’ and the ‘r’!

  4. cacklinq -  July 9, 2014 - 11:56 am

    I think it should be celebrated on May 1st to show unity with all those other countries that also celebrate it on May 1st. The Haymarket Affair was in Chicago, Illinois, USA. So why shouldn’t the US celebrate our fight for the eight-hour workday on a day that is actually RELATED to workers’ rights? It’s silly to celebrate it on September 1st, especially since the only reason was because the federal government didn’t want to incite anger towards the event. It was their fault in the first place for targeting the peaceful event and introducing gunfire.

    May 1st!!!

  5. Gabe is a fag -  September 3, 2013 - 12:17 pm


    • MackDoesStuff -  September 8, 2015 - 7:58 am

      Seriously? Weirdo.

      • it'ssomecorn -  October 10, 2015 - 7:38 pm

        ugh, what do you expect from the internet?
        This is probably just some 12 year old trying to be cool be ‘trolling’ and not realizing the bravery taken by those workers to protest cruel companies for the good of society, and he/she does not honor their deaths after the feds killed them unjustly.

  6. Carl -  July 16, 2013 - 3:21 am

    I thought it had something to do with communists.

    • Jeff -  August 31, 2014 - 10:43 am

      Your thinking that is a testament to the amazing effectiveness of right-wing propaganda. Everything having to do with the rights of workers is associated with Communism, the former Soviet Union, and is therefore scary. I would hope that most of us understand that not to be the case, but the discourse has been steered very effectively in that direction. But I am here to protest against that rhetoric.

      • Rick -  October 21, 2015 - 4:17 pm

        It actually is related to communism though, May day was named an international holiday at the second international, a global meeting of communists and socialists.
        It was named to commemorate the Haymarket Massacare, in which a group of anarchist-communists were (probably) framed for the bombing. From then on May day has been an absolutely huge day for communists and socialists around the world, the USSR even made it a huge holiday with the iconic may day military parades. Communist countries still make May day a huge celebration.
        A big part of the reason the United States celebrates Labor day in September instead of May Day was because they specifically didn’t want workers joining in on a celebration that was started by the communist second international meeting.
        Of course not every country that celebrates it is a communist country, but May 1st is a holiday to celebrate labor specifically because communists decided it should be, and then others adopted it as well.

        But the reality is that even though I’m not a socialist or communist, I recognize that their people, for all their faults, were a big part of the global fight for workers rights. They’re a part of that history and always will be. I mean its entire ideology is centered around the role of the worker in society, so it’s not really that surprising.

  7. Bharat Kumar -  April 29, 2013 - 3:24 am


    By any chance is there a list of countries who celebrate the Labour Day with the respective dates they celebrate it?

    Have been searching and could not find one. Can some one provide me with this list.

    Bharat Kumar.

  8. Humberto -  September 3, 2012 - 8:59 am

    LABOR DAY is LABOR DAY …!!! and it is celebrated in MANY countries around the world on May 1st … It doesn’t matter what day of the week it falls on … it is ALWAYS on May the 1st … U.S.A does NOT want to celebrate it on that day because the U.S.A. government does NOT want anybody realizing that many countries in the world celebrate IN PROTEST against U.S.A due to the massacre against people asking for human rights … Therefor the government tried to distance themselves from that SHAMEFUL memory changing the name for the celebration (only in U.S.A) to “MAY DAY” and since all those countries celebrate “labor day” they had to INVENT another day (far away from the original) to also “celebrate” labor day.

  9. [...] May Day Media Round-Up NOTE: With tens of thousands marching in New York and Oakland and cities throughout the U.S. to defend immigrant rights, protest the corporate capture of government, and bust the banksters for their criminal theft of livelihoods, yesterday, May 1, 2012, was without doubt one of the biggest shows of May Day street heat since the original workers’ May Day was turned into the state-sponsored Labor Day a century ago. [...]

  10. karl hatten sr -  September 11, 2011 - 9:52 am

    Graykat why not celebratelabor day three days down at GM?

  11. Drew -  September 9, 2011 - 1:14 pm

    Why don’t we just make a new holiday called Labor Memorial Day and celebrate that in May? It could honor all the workers everywhere who have ever lived.

  12. Adam -  September 27, 2010 - 6:58 am

    May Day, or Tanz in den Mai in German (literally; dance into May) is an old pre Christian pagan festival. It marks the end of the planting season which officially starts at Easter (also a pagan festival). It is a time when the sexual energy of the sun is encouraged to come down to the earth and copulate with the earth goddess in order to make a good harvest. It is also half way between the spring equinox and summer solstice and the exact opposite time of year to Halloween (which marked the end of harvest and the New Year). The dancing round the May pole by the local virgins was to entice the suns sexual energy to come down and be trapped in the earth, the May pole is a symbolic phallus.
    Most of our festivals have their origin in ancient farming methods.

    • Leigh -  September 15, 2015 - 12:58 pm

      No, you are confused a little. Easter is the celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from death to life. He was killed on Passover and brought back to life on Easter (3 days later on that Sunday). Easter has NEVER been a pagan festival, you are quite incorrect on that point. You cannot link every Christian holiday back to some pagan festival, sorry, it just doesn’t work that way. Most Christians realize that Jesus was not born on Christmas, it is the day we celebrate His birth. Making fun of Christians because you think we are misinformed and that the Yule holiday came to be because it was the coldest darkest part of the winter is just ridiculous. Most Christians already realize that the day of Jesus’ birth is unimportant, the fact that God came to dwell in human form on earth so that He could create a new Covenant is the most important thing. I think the Cross appeared on the horizon of time the second Adam and Eve broke covenant with God. Although, who knows, it is possible that Romans did their census in December!

  13. Citizen of a sovereign nation -  September 10, 2010 - 11:39 am

    According to this history (and any I have read), we (in america) started the whole concept. We can set whatever bloody day we want and to hell with some kind of internationalism. Why do countries have such issues with being the sovereign entities they should be?? May we continue to be unique and strong.

  14. AMY-LOU -  September 10, 2010 - 9:31 am

    That’s so sad i want to cry!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! No j/k i didn’t even read this blog i just got really bored and i want some chesse puffs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. LABOR DAY | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  September 8, 2010 - 9:01 am

    [...] “MAY DAY” might be for “worker’s rights” A Communist Oxymoron — “Labor Day” is for the Labor Unions and the MOBS that keep the score on — who should have the power and who should pay the dues. — “The future ain’t what it used to be “ — Never take a HIKE in white shoes.–>>Rupert L.T.Rhyme [...]

  16. Nat Jay -  September 8, 2010 - 8:29 am

    For a lot of us, it’s the time of year when school begins and we resume the routine of work-life (till December at least) following the end of summer.

  17. To J.D. from K.I. -  September 8, 2010 - 6:18 am

    method and practice. In America.

  18. notaglobalist -  September 7, 2010 - 6:17 am

    This is America. We should be leading the world not striving to copy it. The thought of changing our holidays to match the world’s for the sake of some sort of unity is ridiculous.

    • MackDoesStuff -  September 8, 2015 - 7:53 am

      notaglobalist: Yes we are America BUT we do/will not lead the world. Lol.

  19. Geraint -  September 6, 2010 - 6:14 pm

    I’m astonished that Dictionary.com has misspelt ‘barbecue’ as ‘barbeque’! The date of Labor Day may be different in the US, but I’m sure this word is spelt the same everywhere.

    • MackDoesStuff -  September 8, 2015 - 7:56 am

      No… sometimes I see “Barbeque” on sauce containers and it’s spelt like that on signs sometimes…

      But I spell it as “barbecue” as well. lol.

  20. From New Zealand -  September 6, 2010 - 6:06 pm

    Well here in little old NZ we do it differently from the rest of the would and for us it’s the last Monday in October and ours is to celebrate when this country got the 8 hour working day passed by our governmen and we call it ‘Labour Day’ and we don’t celebrate May day at all.

  21. rachel -  September 6, 2010 - 6:03 pm

    stop crying and enjoy the day off

  22. Hard Truth -  September 6, 2010 - 4:37 pm

    The day should more appropriately be called ‘Labor Union Day’ or even ‘Socialism Day’. It has nothing to do with workers anymore, and everything to do with politicians and labor union organizers.

    • MackDoesStuff -  September 8, 2015 - 7:58 am

      I agree completely.

  23. #1 Skillet fan -  September 6, 2010 - 3:04 pm

    I think that since we Americans have been celebrating Labor Day on the first Monday of September, we don’t have to change it. Labor Day in America has a unique history to it, so it’s kind of like changing the date for Thanksgiving.

  24. Evertha -  September 6, 2010 - 1:49 pm

    With all the Amercans out of workSEPTEMBER6, 2010is A day to remember.Unemployment is not to be celebrated but it can surely be A day forPRAYER and ATONEMENT. Any day is GOOD with PRAYERS of thanksgiving and praise.

  25. GrayKat -  September 6, 2010 - 1:12 pm

    Why not celebrate our workers twice? Aren’t they the ones who MADE America? Seems like a little historical awareness and honest recognition are in order.

    • gary -  September 21, 2015 - 4:20 am

      Entrepreneurs and every day Americans made America. The artist of the Crazy Horse Monument, made that, not a bunch of paid people. Workers work. Usually work to complete someone’s idea. Farmers work, Dr. Nurses, Police, Fireman. Pretty much everyone else works for someone completing that someone’s idea. Union workers had a labour strike in WWII, and tried to stop the trains carrying workers to their jobs at the Philadelphia ship yards. Then President stopped that.

  26. jamdung -  September 6, 2010 - 1:07 pm

    I’m from jamaica and we celebrated labour day on the 23rd of may observed on the monday not on the first so i guess we doing it different too!

  27. Sheri -  September 6, 2010 - 12:43 pm

    The first monday in September is kind of an odd time for a workers’ appreciation day. a lot of people don’t work in the summer and then go back to work at the end of august and then they get a whole day to do nothing because they’ve worked so hard and so long? May1st sounds like the better option. It’s almost vacation time. A three day weekend would be like a primer to get the feel good mood started.

  28. rubybenubi -  September 6, 2010 - 12:26 pm

    It might have made sense originally to follow the crowd and use May 1. Now, with Memorial Day in May and a history of celebrating Labor Day in September, I see no reason to change.

  29. Richard Comaish -  September 6, 2010 - 11:39 am

    May Day is May Day, and Labor Day Labor Day. America should celebrate May Day, with all the other countries, apart from anything else to show that she isn’t behindhand on recognising the history and the 8-hour day ideal. But why stop celebrating Labor Day and the issues which gave rise to it?

  30. Dresden Scott -  September 6, 2010 - 11:33 am

    The US government and our corporate-controlled culture go to great lengths to avoid too much internationalism among our workers…. Our entire labor history gets whitewashed out of the classroom. Even our labor day gets celebrated differently. Here in Minneapolis/St. Paul, we even have an “Aquatennial” in lieu of the anniversary of the 1934 Teamster Strike, which used to be a big celebration.

  31. Silverchild -  September 6, 2010 - 11:29 am

    I agree with elahe. I don’t live in America, but I think that May Day should be the first globally celebrated holiday honouring workers wrights.

  32. Farrah -  September 6, 2010 - 11:25 am

    This just further confirms that Americans have to be different from the rest of the world. Personally, I’m used to having labor day being on the first day of September so we shouldn’t change it now. But we really should have celebrated Labor Day with the rest of the world on May 1 to begin with.

  33. totolotto70 -  September 6, 2010 - 11:17 am

    I was astonished when I learned from Billy Bragg’s twitter-page that today is Labor Day.

  34. elahe -  September 6, 2010 - 10:55 am

    I’d say it’s better to celebrate it with all those 80 countries on May 1.


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