Why do we have bank holidays? Why we have time off in May explained - and why we celebrate May Day in the UK

The month of May offers up two bank holidays for the public to enjoy, meaning you don’t have to wait quite as long as usual before enjoying a little extra time off

The May Day bank holiday is the first of two bank holidays that the month of May has to offer. But why exactly do we have bank holidays - and why do we celebrate May Day?

This is everything you need to know about bank holidays - from their history to why we celebrate May Day, and how many we have left in 2021 to enjoy.

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Why do we have bank holidays?

As Covid-19 restrictions lift across the UK, many will be flocking to beer gardens to enjoy the bank holiday (Photo: Shutterstock)

Bank holidays were first introduced by banker, politician and scientific writer Sir John Lubbock, who drafted the Bank Holiday Act in 1871.

He added Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day to the two common law holidays that already existed, which was Good Friday and Christmas Day.

Originally, it was just banks and financial buildings that closed on these dates, which is where the name “bank holiday” comes from.

A briefing paper from the House of Commons Library on bank and public holidays explains: “The Bank Holidays Act 1871 sought to address the fact that, while most employers were able to give their workers day off on “public” holidays, it was difficult for banks to do so because the holders of bills of exchange had the power to require payment on those days.”

Gradually, the likes of businesses, shops, schools and the Government also joined in on these holidays.

The Bank Holiday Act was repealed and replaced by the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971, which remains in force today.

What’s the difference between bank holidays and public holidays?

Bank holidays generally refer to the certain number of public holidays that we get every year - eight if you live in England and Wales, nine if you live in Scotland and 10 if you live in Northern Ireland.

The Government explains that, according to the law, there is a distinction between the two holidays.

Bank holidays are holidays created under the Banking and Financial Dealings Act 1971, and they include days that are specifically listed in the Act, as well as days that are proclaimed by the Queen.

Public holidays are common law holidays in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and include Christmas Day and Good Friday. In Scotland, the term “public holiday” holds a different meaning, where it refers to specific local holidays.

While there is a difference between bank holidays and public holidays, the difference is largely academic and in practice generally operate in the same way.

In Scotland, bank holidays are a devolved issue. This enabled, in 2007, the creation of a ninth bank holiday, St Andrews Day.

Northern Ireland also has a proclaimed bank holiday to mark the Battle of Boyne, in addition to St Patrick’s Day which is listed in the 1971 Act.

When is May Day - and why do we celebrate it?

The May Day, or Early May, bank holiday will take place this year on Monday 3 May.

The holiday marks the arrival of spring, and the celebration can be traced back to the 14th century.

Traditional celebrations include crowning a May Queen and dancing around a maypole.

In 2011, changing the date of the May Day bank holiday was considered by the British parliament.

According to a pre-consultation document from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, May Day was chosen because “when Easter is late, as it has been [in 2011], it can lead to three bank holidays (four in 2011 due to the Royal Wedding) in a space of a short amount of tie, with another bank holiday at the end of May”.

It adds that the “concentration” of bank holidays will have an effect on the economy, and that moving the May Day bank holiday “therefore would dilute this concentration”.

Ultimately, it was decided that the date of the May Day bank holiday would be left alone.

What bank holidays are left in 2021?

There are a number of bank holidays still to take place throughout the rest of the year in the UK.

If a bank holiday falls on a weekend, a ‘substitute’ weekend becomes a bank holiday instead, usually the following Monday.

In Scotland, these dates are bank holidays this year:

- Early May bank holiday - Monday 3 May

- Spring bank holiday - Monday 31 May

- Summer bank holiday - Monday 2 August

- St Andrew’s Day - Tuesday 30 November

- Christmas Day (substitute day) - Monday 27 December

- Boxing Day (substitute day) - Tuesday 28 December

England and Wales mostly have the same line-up of bank holidays except the exemption of St Andrew’s Day on Monday 30 November, which is only observed in Scotland.

Bank holidays in Northern Ireland are, again, generally the same with only a few differences. Like England and Wales, St Andrew’s Day is not a bank holiday. Northern Ireland also has an additional bank holiday on Monday 12 July for Battle of the Boyne (Orangemen’s Day).