May Day: The origin of the labor rights holiday, explained

By AJ Willingham

Published May 1, 2020


To most people in the Northern Hemisphere, May Day conjures images of brightly colored twirling ribbons and promises of warm days ahead. That's not the whole story, though.


May Day is also a day of protests and riots that traces its modern roots back to a world-changing explosion in Chicago.


When is May Day?

May Day is May 1 every year. Easy to remember, right?

Photo Illustration: Shutterstock / CNN

What is May Day?

Depending on where you are, it's either a seasonal celebration or a day to celebrate workers' rights, or maybe a little bit of both. Think of the latter use as a Labor Day, if you will, for the whole world.


How did it start?

Originally, May Day was an ancient pagan holiday celebrating the start of summer. In Gaelic traditions, it is known as Beltaine (or the Anglicized "Beltane"). As time went on, different groups adapted the celebration.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images

How did it become a day for labor rights?

May Day has shared a date with International Workers' Day since the 1880s. At the time, labor movements around the world were fighting for fair work accommodations.

Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images

The date was chosen because it aligned with the anniversary of the 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago, when police killed four people at a peaceful protest after someone threw a bomb into the crowd. The event had a huge effect on labor movements throughout the world.


Why are there sometimes riots and marches?

International Workers' Day/May Day is often a day of protest for labor unions. The people come out to rally, and sometimes the passionate demonstrations can turn violent. Though with the pandemic, there might not be protests this year.

Marco Bertorello/AFP/Getty Images