How Italy Celebrates Labour Day on May 1

Picnics & Parades: How Italy Celebrates Labour Day on May

Posted on April 17th 2023 by Drive in Rome

May 1 is a huge public holiday in Italy, up there with Christmas, Easter, Festa della Repubblica (June 2), and Ferragosto (August 15). The official name of the holiday is Festa dei Lavoratori — festa meaning “celebration” and lavoratori meaning “workers” — in other words, Labour Day. Italians typically just call it Primo Maggio which literally means “May first”.

In many countries around the world, May 1 is celebrated as International Workers’ Day. The holiday has its roots in the labour movement at the end of the 19th Century and celebrates the social and economic achievements of workers.

In Italy, May 1 is a day of picnics and parades, representing the two important facets of the holiday. Primarily, Primo Maggio is a day of relaxation and togetherness, when friends and family assemble for picnics in the park or to have a barbeque in the yard. It’s also a day to demonstrate ongoing solidarity amongst workers (a very powerful thing in Italy), as folks congregate for parades and rallies where social and political issues can be addressed.

Origins of May 1 as a Labourer’s Holiday

Some say that the May 1 celebration in Italy goes back thousands of years to the Celtic festival of Beltane associated with the renewal of life and the arrival of summer that became May Day in more modern times. While there are symmetries between the two holidays, May 1 in Italy is more closely tied to workers’ rights groups than it is to revelers dancing around a maypole.

In 1889, May 1 was designated “International Workers’ Day” by an international federation of socialist associations and trade unions to commemorate the Haymarket Riot of 1886. In May of that year, a peaceful protest over labour reform in Chicago erupted into violence, injury, and death on the part of both civilians and law enforcement. The clash became a symbol of the international struggle for the rights of labourers. The holiday created to honour the struggles and contributions of workers all over the world is still celebrated in many countries, including France, Germany, Spain, the UK, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, and India.

If you’re American or Canadian, you might be wondering “What’s all this about Labour Day in May? Labour Day is in September!” In fact, shortly before the designation of May 1 as International Workers’ Day in 1889, the first holiday to recognize labourers in the US was held on September 5, 1882 in New York City. Even though the date was somewhat arbitrarily chosen, falling between Independence Day and Thanksgiving, the Knights of Labor adopted a resolution in 1884 that the first Monday in September be considered Labor Day. The idea took hold. A few years later, several states had passed laws creating a holiday to pay tribute to workers. Not long after that, in 1894, Labour Day became a national holiday in both the US and Canada, to be celebrated on the first Monday in September.

What to Expect if You’re in Italy on May 1

If you’re fortunate enough to be on holiday in Italy on May 1, you can take part in the colossal collective party taking place across the country.

What Will Be Closed, What Will Be Open

Most businesses and shops will be closed and public transportation will be running on minimum schedules but the parks and piazzas will be swarming with people and vibrating with the energy of eating, drinking, talking, and laughing.

You can expect virtually all museums and tourist attractions to be closed on May 1 in Italy, with the notable exception of the Borghese Gallery in Rome, which is open on Labour Day (unless it falls on a Monday). Primo Maggio is a good day to visit churches in Italy, as they will be one of the few things open besides restaurants, cafès, bars, and public green spaces.

What to Do in Italy on May 1

Picnics are the iconic event of Primo Maggio. In Tuscany and Lazio, it’s basically obligatory to sit on the lawn and eat fresh fava beans (called baccelli in Tuscany) with pecorino cheese (made from sheep’s milk). This is a delightful tradition that produces not only mounds of gigantic empty bean pods with their fleece-like interiors but also sunburns, as the early May sun foretells the scorching summer heat soon to come.

Should your travels take you to Milan or Turin or some other place in the north of the country for Labour Day, you might catch a worker’s parade (called a manifesto in Italy). In Rome, one of the most famous May 1st celebrations is held in Piazza San Giovanni, outside the Archbasilica of San Giovanni in Laterano (one of the four papal basilicas in Rome). This event, organized by Italy’s largest labour unions, is a massive rally dressed up as a concert featuring all styles of music and lots of famous performers.

Labour Day in Italy Summed Up

Even though May 1 in Italy is a grand day of family and friends, of partying and picnics, it is also a time to reflect and remember the contributions of workers in recent centuries that not only launched but also vastly reshaped our present societies.

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