Holidays & Celebrations 1 May

Have you ever wondered why you’re allowed to stay in bed longer on 1 May in Germany and other European countries? And who’s doing all that shouting out in the streets? Let’s disentangle some of the myths surrounding 1 May.

1 May in Hamburg

1 May in Hamburg

Workers of All Nations

As a public holiday in Germany, 1 May is known as Tag der Arbeit or German Labour Day. In many parts of the world, Labo(u)r Day commemorates workers of all nations fighting for the privilege of working (only!) 8 hours a day in the 19th century.

But unlike Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the USA, where it is celebrated in September, most European countries chose to celebrate Labour Day on 1 May to commemorate the Haymarket affair - one of the largest workers’ rights demonstrations of the 19th century, which happened on that very day in Chicago back in 1886. And isn’t it nicer to have a sunny spring day off rather than a reminder that summer is ending and kids are heading back to school?

The Nazis tried to co-opt Labour Day as their own accomplishment, before annexing the trade unions on 2 May, 1933. But ever since the end of World War II, 1 May has been the official workers’ holiday in (East and West) Germany, celebrated quietly or in colourful workers’ rights parades, giving other leftist groups the chance to raise their voices, too. You might bump into one of these if you decide to have a walk through Schanze that day.

Holy Spirit and a Whole Lot of Spirits

In a much older and more obscure sense, however, 1 May has always been celebrated as a turning point of the year in various pagan and Christian initiation rites of spring. Known especially in northern Germany as Walpurgisnacht, the eve of 1 May draws its name from a Christian abbess from the 8th century who specialised in driving out evil spirits, especially witches.

But the witches struck back by celebrating their own nocturnal festival. Originating on the Blocksberg mountain top (modern-day Brocken in the Harz Mountains), Walpurgisnacht is now celebrated as Tanz in den Mai, literally ‘Dance into May’, all over Germany, with Hamburg’s bars and clubs offering an abundance of ways to dance the night away.

So, whether worshipper, worker or witch, there are plenty of reasons for everyone to celebrate 1 May as a public holiday. And if you choose not to dance into May or protest in the streets, you can still take a lovely walk through Hamburg’s parks or go for a bike ride in the city’s environs with your loved ones on an early spring afternoon.

1 May in Hamburg