May Day versus Labor Day

Today the General Roman Calendar celebrates St Joseph the Worker as an Optional Memorial. The observance is marked with more or less solemnity in different places. But I have always wondered why it is celebrated on May 1 in the United States.

Even though I am currently ministering in Ireland, the land of my birth, I hope that US readers will accept my reflection as a naturalized US citizen who had spent two thirds of my adult life in the US and as a presbyter ordained (and incardinated) in a US Archdiocese.

Simply put, I have always thought that the observance of St. Joseph the Worker would be better celebrated in the US on Labor Day.

Before Pius XII introduced this observance in 1955, May 1 had different emphases including Our Lady, St. Walpurga, as well as many other themes. However, since the late nineteenth century, May 1 has been observed as the International Workers’ Day. This civil observance had Marxist overtones in its origins, but today it is observed in most countries of the world. The Catholic liturgical observance is undoubtedly to counterbalance the Marxist origins of today’s International Workers’ Day.

However, May 1 it is not observed in the US and there is no need for a Christian counterbalance on that day. In the US, Labor Day has a similar function.  Therefore, I would propose that the US Church observe St. Joseph the Worker on Labor Day. Perhaps in certain parishes the May 1 modern liturgical observance is indeed popular (although I have never seen any evidence of it). But I would purpose that moving it to Labor Day would allow US Catholics to celebrate it better and would be a better opportunity for catechesis on the importance of work and the dignity and rights of workers.


Cover art: Christ in the House of His Parents (1849-1850) by John Everett Millais from Wikimedia.


  1. FWIW, May 1’s association with labor *began* in the USA.

    When Labor Day was adopted as a federal holiday in the USA in the following decade, its placement in September was deliberately done to avoid the socialist associations that had developed around May 1.

    That said, May 1 has excellent American roots, and the retention of St Joseph the Worker on this day in the US liturgical calendar can be an occasion to remember those roots.

  2. My hand missal, published in 1947, had Ss Philip and James on 1 May. I well remember being somewhat annoyed in 1955 when the new feast was promulgated, rendering my missal less than perfect! At that point, Philip and James got bumped to 11 May, only to be re-bumped to 3 May when the present General Roman Calendar came into force in 1969.

  3. Does St. Joseph resonate as a worker? Unlike various disciples, he is never portrayed in the Bible as working. Isn’t it enough that he was a husband, step father, refugee and dreamer? If it has to a be New Testament figure, I would nominate Paul, who apparently balanced his craft and his ministry. Or we could run with St. Isadore the farmer. Or San Juan Diego.

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