What Is May Day? History, Meaning and Facts About International Workers' Day

Thousands of demonstrators march through downtown to City Hall in one of several May Day marches and rallies in southern California and in at least 75 cities nationwide to press for immigrant and labor rights May 1, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. David McNew/Getty Images

May Day, celebrated on May 1, has taken on many meanings over the centuries, and it wasn't until the 19th century that it became known as International Workers' Day in the United States. Here's what you need to know about the holiday workers around the world were celebrating Tuesday.

Early meanings

In the British Isles, the Celts held the Beltane festival, or May Day festival, on May 1 to symbolize the transition every year from dark to light and fertility in the world. By the 19th and 20th centuries, Americans were partaking in May Basket Day, hanging baskets filled with flowers and treats on their friends and neighbors' doors.

International Workers' Day

May Day took on a labor rights meaning during the Industrial Revolution, when thousands of working men, women and even children died annually due to harsh conditions. Laborers commonly worked 10 to 16-hour work days in an unsafe environment, according to the Industrial Workers of the World.

The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, which become the American Federation of Labor, during a Chicago convention in 1884 proclaimed that a legal work day would be eight hours starting on May 1, 1886.

On that day, 40,000 workers in Chicago and more than 300,000 laborers from 13,000 businesses across the U.S. staged walkouts, with the proclamation backed by the country's biggest labor organization at the time, the Knights of Labor.

The demonstrations were peaceful until May 3, when Chicago police officers killed and wounded several laborers during a clash at the McCormick Reaper Works manufacturing plant. The next day, strikers rallied at Haymarket Square in protest. As police began to disperse the Haymarket Riot, an unidentified suspect launched a bomb that killed at least seven officers and eight civilians died. Eight men considered anarchists were convicted in connection with the riot bombing in August 1886 despite a lack of concrete evidence.

May Day's history has since been embraced by governments across the world, not only those with communist or socialist roots. President Dwight D. Eisenhower attempted to distance to May Day from the Haymarket Riot by declaring May 1 in 1958 as "Law Day," honoring the law in the U.S.

What Is May Day? History, Meaning and Facts About International Workers' Day | U.S.