May Day: History & Meaning

May Day Sign

May Day, celebrated every year on the first day of May, is a day that’s rich with history and meaning. It has ties to ancient pagan rituals as well as important labor movements that played a role in shaping the world we live in today. With that said, the holiday appeals to a lot of different people for a range of unique reasons. Keep reading to learn more about May Day, its history, and the many ways you can celebrate it!

When Is May Day?

May Day is a holiday celebrated on May 1. If you want to track which day of the week it occurs on and mark your calendar accordingly, take a look below:

  • 2021: Saturday, May 1
  • 2022: Sunday, May 1
  • 2023:Monday, May 1
  • 2024: Wednesday, May 1

History of May Day 

May Day is a holiday that carries more than one meaning. The holiday originated in Europe, and has its roots in ancient pagan festivals that were centered around agriculture and prosperity. These festivals were occasions to welcome the beginning of the spring season or mark the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Typically, these celebrations involved the gathering of flowers, the weaving of floral garlands and baskets, and engaging in friendly competitions. 

Traditionally, villagers would set up a maypole, decorate it with colorful streamers, and dance around it. While the origins of the maypole itself aren’t exactly clear, many historians have suggested that maypole dancing and other aspects of the holiday were aimed towards ensuring fertility for crops, livestock, and humans. 

The ancient Romans celebrated May Day in a similar manner. They called the day “Floralia” in honor of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring. The festivities on this day, such as releasing hares and goats into the streets and tossing lentils into crowds, were also joyous occasions associated with fertility and the onset of the spring season. 

While May Day is still celebrated with flowers, dancing, and other festivities in some parts of Europe, the meaning of the holiday has changed in the past 100 years or so, especially in the United States. This shift began to take place on May 4, 1886, when, at the height of the industrial revolution, a violent confrontation between labor activists and police officers led to the deaths of seven police officers and four civilians, as well as dozens of injuries. Shortly after this tragedy, eight civilians were hastily prosecuted and seven of them were sentenced to death. 

Given that the Haymarket Riot took place at the beginning of May, labor activists from around the world started to repurpose May Day as International Workers’ Day. For the past century, labor activists and working-class people have taken the day as an opportunity to plan rallies, protests, and demonstrations, both to honor the industrial revolution of the 19th century and to highlight existing inequalities and struggles. 

May Day Pole

How to Celebrate May Day 

Whether you want to celebrate May Day by honoring the traditional European festivals or paying homage to the industrial revolution, there are a number of ways you can do so. Below, we’ve assembled just a few of the different ways you can celebrate May Day:

  • Gather flowers: Flowers, especially colorful ones, have traditionally been a big part of May Day. Gather local spring flowers, such as daisies and peace lilies, and use them to make a bouquet, a garland, or even a flower crown. 
  • Create a May Day basket: In the past, creating May Day baskets was a beloved custom, especially in rural communities. Young people would put together baskets filled with flowers, treats, and small gifts to hang on the doors of friends, family, and neighbors. This year, try creating your own May Day basket and giving it to someone close to you!
  • Take part in a rally: On May Day, rallies in support of workers’ rights are held all over the world. If this is a cause that interests you, consider taking part in a local protest or demonstration. 
  • Find a local festival: In many communities across the country, you can still find May Day festivals that provide a space for people to dance, exchange colorful mixed flower bouquets, and have a good time. Do some research to find a May Day festival near you. 
  • Celebrate with friends: Whether you’re dancing around a maypole or marching for workers’ rights, having friends around can make the day a bit better. If you can’t meet up with friends in person, FTD offers gift baskets for delivery that will brighten up just about anyone’s May Day!

May Day is a holiday that offers something for everyone. It’s a wonderful opportunity to welcome the spring season and look back on history. One of the best ways you can bring in the new season is with fresh spring flowers. Shop FTD’s online collection to get fresh bouquets, elegant flower arrangements, and colorful May Day flowers delivered directly to your doorstep!