(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
May 1 is known as May Day. It has its origins in ancient pagan festivals and in crop and pastoral cycles in many societies across Europe. May 1 is the start of the warmer six months of the year in the northern hemisphere after often bitterly cold winters and this was cause for celebration with bonfires and dancing. The Druids celebrated May 1 as the day of their Bealtaine, or Beltane, festival or feast. At the same time, Germany and surrounding areas celebrated Walpurgis Night, a similar ceremony.
The religious aspect of May Day continued after the Romans arrived in Britain. They worshipped their goddess of flowers, Flora, on this day. This ceremony had been conducted in romanized Europe for some time. In Britain, the old customs of Bealtaine became part of the Floralia festival. During the Puritan era in the 16th and 17th centuries, May Day became more of a secular celebration. Some religious connections remained though, such as the Catholic custom of paying homage to the Virgin Mary on this day. Many current May Day traditions have their roots in paganism, such as the maypole and the May Queen.
In the United Kingdom, as in many countries, May Day or the first Monday in May is a public holiday. Originally a feast that celebrated the new crops and springtime fertility, May Day has emphasized fetes, carnivals and general merriment for hundreds of years. At many of these gatherings, dancing around the maypole is a popular tradition.
This tall wooden pole is driven into the ground and adorned with ribbons, flowers and other decorations which vary between regions. Dancers hang on to the ribbons and weave around each other as they circle the pole, men or boys in one direction and women or girls in the other. Eventually, the pole is entwined with ribbon and participants finish up at its base. Maypole dancing has its origins in Germanic paganism and is a traditional May Day or Midsummer activity in other parts of Europe.
Morris dancing is another favourite traditional activity on May Day. This is a choreographed dance by groups of dancers with sticks or pieces of cloth, sometimes performed around a maypole or as part of a parade. Morris dancing can be traced to the 15th century and has no ties to paganism. A May Queen is often picked to head a May Day parade. The queen, usually a student from a local secondary school, is dressed in white and reads a speech to start the dancing and other festivities.
Other May Day traditions in England include university students in pagan rituals, playing madrigal music, and dancing at sunrise in celebrations at Durham and Oxford. A Jack in the Green carnival has been revived in towns such as Whitstable, Rochester, Hastings, Bristol and Oxford, where the traditional figure dressed as a tree leads a parade of morris dancers and others. Hordes of motorbike riders set off from London each year in the Maydayrun and travel the 55 miles to Hastings to join its Jack in the Green festivities.
Another May Day festival enjoying a revival is ‘Obby-Oss’, or Hobby Horse, in Padstow, Cornwall. There is maypole dancing and plenty of singing and dancing in the streets. Other Cornish towns hold a Flower Boat Ritual, where a model boat is taken past decorated houses to the beach and set afloat. Maypole dancing and morris dancing are popular there too.
May Day celebrations in Ireland can be tracked back to the pagan Bealtaine festival of feasts and bonfires. More recently, it is known as Mary’s Day. Fire lighting is still carried out in Limerick but not elsewhere, although signs of a revival of this ritual are evident in other parts and by expatriates. Suspending ‘May boughs’ on houses is also less common these days, but is practised by diaspora in parts of North America. A Beltane Fire Festival was resurrected in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh in 1988 and is now attended by a sell-out crowd of 11,500. Other May Day events are held in Scottish towns and cities.
Germany has a May Day slogan of ‘Tanz in den Mai’ or ‘Dance into May’. On the eve of May Day, there are traditional pagan ceremonies such as bonfires and maypole decorating. In western areas, males send their girlfriends a tree or maypole adorned with streamers. May Day itself is popular for picnics and other outings.
In France, men give women a lily sprig, a ritual that started when Charles IX did this on 1 May 1561. A woman traditionally kisses the man who gave her the branch. Vendors set up stalls and sell these sprays and don’t have to pay tax on the profits.
Finland starts May Day festivities with its Walpurgis Night on the eve of the holiday. The event is one of the country’s three largest celebrations, the others being New Year’s Eve and the midsummer Juhannas, and there are bonfires and plenty of eating, drinking and partying, with festivities carrying over to the next day. Similar nights are held in Sweden, Germany, Estonia and Czech Republic. Large picnics are organized in Finnish parks on May Day and political and religious groups use the day for marches and speeches.
May Day has become a traditional occasion for labour groups to commemorate victories such as the eight hour day and women’s right to work in Europe and elsewhere. In Germany, May Day equates with Day of Labour and there are various marches and demonstrations. These events have been marred by violence over the years, although the holding of street fairs in recent times has helped prevent serious disturbances. The United Kingdom has also suffered its share of unrest on this day.
Spain and Portugal have celebrated May Day as a labour day since the end of their dictatorship eras several decades ago. In Italy, traditional May Day celebrations include ‘Concerto del Primo Maggio’, or ‘1 May’s Concert’, attracting a crowd of over 300,000. In Hungary, people dance round ‘May trees’. The UK, Greece, Scandinavian countries and Russia all hold annual parades, meetings and demonstrations to celebrate labour achievements on May Day.