By Joe Cannavo
As cited in previous articles, Italy along with a majority of its sister European countries celebrates a public or national holiday almost every month. Some months may even have three or four public holidays. For workers this means a paid day off. One such holiday is May Day.
Being a traditional European spring celebration, May Day is a national public holiday in several European countries, Italy among them. The date is currently celebrated specifically as “Labor Day” or “International Workers’ Day” in the majority of countries, including those which didn’t traditionally celebrate May Day. Some countries celebrate a Labor Day on other dates significant to them, such as the United States, which celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September.
Beginning in the late 19th century, as the trade union and labor movements grew, a variety of days were chosen by trade unionists as a day to celebrate labor. In the United States and Canada, a September holiday, called Labor Day, was first proposed in the 1880s. In 1882, Matthew Maguire, a machinist, first proposed a Labor Day holiday on the first Monday of September while he was secretary of the Central Labor Union of New York. Others argue that it was first proposed by Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor in May 1882, after witnessing the annual labor festival held in Toronto, Canada. In 1887, Oregon was the first state of the United States to make it an official public holiday. By the time it became an official federal holiday in 1894, 30 U.S. states officially celebrated Labor Day. Thus by 1887 in North America, Labor Day was an established, official holiday but in September, not on May 1.
May 1 was chosen to be International Workers’ Day in order to commemorate the May 4, 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. The police were trying to disperse a public assembly during a general strike for the eight-hour workday, when an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police. The police responded by firing on the workers, killing four demonstrators. The following day, May 5, in Milwaukee Wisconsin, the state militia fired on a crowd of strikers killing seven, including a schoolboy and a man feeding chickens in his yard.
In 1889, a meeting in Paris was held by the first congress of the Second International, following a proposal by Raymond Lavigne which called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago protests. May Day was formally recognized as an annual event at the International’s second congress in 1891. Subsequently, the May Day riots of 1894 occurred. The International Socialist Congress, Amsterdam 1904 called on “all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.’’ The congress made it “mandatory upon the proletarian organizations of all countries to stop work on May 1, wherever it is possible without injury to the workers.’’
The first May Day celebration in Italy took place in 1890. It started initially as an attempt to celebrate workers’ achievements in their struggle for their rights and for better social and economic conditions. It was abolished under the Fascist Regime. During that period, a “Holiday of the Italian Labor,” Festa del lavoro italiano, was celebrated on April 21, the date of Natale di Roma, when ancient Rome was allegedly founded. Labor Day was immediately restored after the Second World War. May Day is now an important celebration in Italy and is a national holiday regardless of what day of the week it falls. The Concerto del Primo Maggio (“1st of May Concert”), organized by Italian labor unions in Rome in Piazza di Porta San Giovanni has become an important event in recent years. Every year the concert is attended by a large audience of mostly young people and involves participation of many famous bands and songwriters, lasting from 3 p.m. till midnight. The concert is usually broadcast live by Rai 3
In 1955, the Catholic Church dedicated May 1 to “St. Joseph the Worker,’’ St. Joseph being the patron saint of workers and craftsmen, among others. *
(*Editor’s note: The connection to St. Joseph and May 1 does not constitute this as namesake day for people with the name Joseph. March 19 is the Feast day of the St. Joseph and also the date when Italians celebrate Father’s Day.