May Day 2013: Everything you need to know about May Day history, Law Day and maypoles on May 1

April 30, 2013 

Believe it or not, May 1 has more significance than a cute "it's gonna be May" meme featuring Justin Timberlake.

Perhaps you've always wondered about references to May Day. A Huffington Post contributor explains May Day celebrations "were born more than a century ago out of a struggle by American workers for the eight-hour day."

In the late 1800s, times were tough for workers in the U.S. You can blame the growing rise of corporations, which didn't always create the best work conditions. Workers' campaign for an eight-hour work day reached a milestone on May 1, 1886.

The aforementioned blog post notes:

Gradually, plans took shape for a day of worker protests demanding the eight-hour day. And on May 1, 1886, protests erupted all across the United States, with some 340,000 workers taking part. An estimated 190,000 went out on strike.

May Day celebrations later spread to Communist governments, which naturally didn't make the U.S. government too happy. That's why in 1958, President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as Law Day. The History Channel explains, "May Day had communist overtones in the minds of many Americans, because of its celebration of working people as a governing class in the Soviet Union and elsewhere."

Law Day encourages Americans to focus on the rights established "in the fundamental documents of American democracy," it adds.

For what it's worth, after the 1886 protests, it still took decades for many Americans to finally see an eight-hour workday.

So what's up with references to maypoles on May 1? Remember, May 1 was a celebration of spring in medieval and modern Europe, according to Encyclopædia Britannica.

May Day dances still take place in some communities.

The New York Times explains, "The May Day dance may seem a trifle outdated, but every spring in communities here and there across America, celebrants follow the ancient custom, erecting a maypole, usually cedar or birch, and dancing around it, typically weaving colorful ribbons around the pole as they go."

One more May Day tradition worth noting: Wikipedia notes that in some parts of the U.S., people fill baskets with goodies on May 1. They put a basket on the recipient's doorstep, ring the doorbell and try not to get caught. Believe it or not, I did this as a child.

Fun times.

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