May first is often called May Day, but that means different things depending on what country you’re in and what century it is. Two posts at the National Museum of American History’s blog explain the complicated history of May Day in America. In the first post, the ancient history of May Day tells how the
Roman festival of Floralia collided with the Celtic holiday of Beltane. This made for a nice spring holiday, but was just too pagan for the Puritans that settled America. The former spring rituals, like the Maypole dance, were brought back in the late 19th century. But then labor reformers appropriated the day, as explained in part two.
In Chicago, 44 unions took to the streets on May 1, 1867, to celebrate the passage of an eight-hour workday law in Illinois. The next day, thousands of workers struck, staying home from work in an act of solidarity. Although the 1867 law was never enforced, the city's workers preserved the memory of their predecessors' short-lived victory. Years later, at its 1885 convention, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Assemblies (a predecessor to the American Federation of Labor, or AFL) selected May 1, 1886, as the date for a universal strike to press for an eight-hour workday. According to the historian Donna T. Haverty-Stacke, labor leaders' decision to stage their protest on May 1, 1886, probably had little to do with the May Day's significance as a spring holiday. Instead, leaders at the time associated the day with Chicago's earlier protests in 1867 and, even more directly, the fact that May 1 was traditionally when union contracts and housing leases expired in U.S. cities.
Two things killed May Day as a labor holiday in the US: the 1886 protest spawned the Haymarket Riot. Then Europe adopted May first as a labor holiday. You can read the history of May Day in America at Smithsonian's American History blog, and otherwise have a happy International Workers Day, Beltane, Floralia, or May Day! -via Metafilter
(Image credit: Library of Congress)
PS: Here are some May Day events in North America.