Written by: Olivera Tolimir

If you ever wondered if Serbians celebrate May Day, you came to the right place. You won’t only get the answer to your question, but you’ll also find out why, and what’s more important – how and where to celebrate it when you visit Serbia. 

History of the May Day

People across the globe celebrate May Day in very different ways. Some go to protest walks, some dance around the maypole, and others go camping. If you wonder where these differences came from, the answer is this holiday emerges two different ones. It’s a combination of an old pagan festival that celebrates spring and the workers’ fight for their rights. Yes, it sounds unrelated, but they somehow merged.

May celebrations started with two festivals in ancient times. One represented a celebration of Dionysus (god of wine, grape harvest, and festivity) and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty, love, and passion). Another was dedicated to Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. When we look at what these gods and goddesses represent, it’s not difficult to understand why May was the perfect month to honor them. Nature wakes up, and people are ready to enjoy life and sunshine (with some wine, of course). In some countries, certain Christian saints are honored on this day. But, in Serbia (and most of the world) it’s a famous secular holiday – International Workers’ Day.

International Workers’ Day (or Labour Day) is a day when we honor the working class and their hard work. Yet, workers had to fight hard for their rights, so the beginnings of the First of May weren’t so festive. It all started in the USA in May 1886 as a workers’ strike. They demanded an 8-hour day, and thus protested, at first peacefully. But soon it became violent because the police shot at unarmed people, killing several of them. The next day it became even worse. An unidentified person threw a bomb and killed seven police officers and four protesters. They never found out who threw the bomb, but eight people were arrested. Seven of them were sentenced to death and one of them went to prison for 15 years. Today, Labor Day is celebrated in September in the USA and Canada. In other parts of the world, May Day emerged with International Workers’ Day and it’s celebrated on May 1st.

International Workers’ Day in Serbia

In Serbia, Labour Day is a public holiday. Interestingly, non-working days are the first and the second of May! Also, when the First of May falls on Sunday, we move the non-working days to the second and third of May. You can conclude this holiday is pretty important around here. Some could say it’s because our politicians care about the working class so much. Others would disagree by saying it’s because they don’t care enough, so workers must protest every year. We won’t get into this serious subject right now, but we can say neither is true. After World War II, International Workers’ Day had an important role in our country. Serbia was a part of Yugoslavia back then and it was a time when workers were praised. So, it was logical for their holiday to be as important as it could get. There were parades in workers’ honor. Sometimes even the military participated. Labor unions’ role wasn’t fighting for the rights of the working class. Instead, they planned trips and fun activities during May 1. Excursions to Trieste were very popular back then.

After the breakup of Yugoslavia, things changed. There were no more excursions, but the love for the First of May remained. May 1st traditions in Serbia include an outdoor barbecue with friends and family. Friends get together on a mission to find the best place to make grilled meat, drink beer and listen to music. It’s a cheerful day when everyone is relaxed and happy. Men usually make barbecue, and women prepare salads. Of course, the role division isn’t strict, so anyone can help by doing any of those things. Everyone participates and enjoys. People sometimes find a spot an evening before May first and set up their tents. Then they prepare everything for the barbecue, drink beer, and hang out. Sometimes the camping even extends to May 2. It all depends on how good the company is! The First of May food in Serbia usually includes ćevapi, pljeskavice, sausages, and chicken breasts. As a salad, we usually eat lettuce and scallion.

Where to go during the International Workers’ Day in Serbia

Almost every town in Serbia has its destination nearby for the Labor Day celebrations. Here are some of the most famous ones:

  • Palic is a little town near Subotica with a lake of the same name. It’s located close to the Hungarian border. Palic lake is famous among Serbians as a weekend resort. But from April 29th to May 3rd, it becomes a big, crowded amusement park with a lot of rollercoasters and even more food!
  • Srebrno jezero (Silver Lake) is an artificial lake on the Danube, in Eastern Serbia. The lake is popular among the youth during International Workers’ Day because of the Uranak fest. It’s a music festival that attracts young people from the whole of Serbia.
  • Belgrade: If you wonder where people from the capital go for the First of May – well, they have a few options. The most-liked destination is Ada Ciganlija. This is a river island turned into a peninsula that lies on the Sava River’s course in Belgrade. On Ada, you’ll find everything you need for a perfect May 1st. There’s enough sunshine, sports fields, and many barbecue places. Another great place in Belgrade is Kosutnjak. In this beautiful park forest, everyone can find a spot to spread a blanket, eat, drink, and listen to music. The third most popular “May” place in Belgrade is Avala. This low mountain (511 meters above sea level) is a perfect choice if you like crowded places and a beautiful panoramic view.

The list could go on and on, but we’ll stop here and tell you to look up Bor Lake, Sopotnica, Goc Mountain, Sokobanja, Zlatibor…