Australia, Bealtaine, bonfires, Britain, Catholic, craft gilds, crop cycles, dancing, Diana, Druids, Europe, fires, Flora, Floralia, France, Germany, Goddess of the Hunt, International Working Men’s Association, labor, Labor Day, May 1, May Day, May Queen, maypole, Middle Ages, Morris dancing, New Year's day, organized labor, pagan festivals, paganism, Puritans, rebirth, Robin Goodfellow, Romans, United States, Virgin Mary, Walpurgis Night, workers
(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)
May Day has its origins in ancient pagan festivals and 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 of new life. The Druids, who thrived in Britain prior to the Roman invasion in the first century, 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 Druids regarded this day as their New Year’s Day where they lit large fires, a ritual practised in many parts of the world. The fires were thought to help the sun become stronger in the coming weeks and months leading up to mid summer, thereby assisting crops and animals to thrive. The Druids drove their cattle through the edges of the fires as this was thought to purify the beasts, while young couples would run through the smoke to bring them good fortune. In Europe, the bonfires were thought to drive off the dead and the evil spirits.
The religious aspect of May Day continued after the Romans arrived in Britain. The main ritual of the Romans on May Day was the worship of their goddess of flowers, Flora. This ceremony had been conducted in romanized Europe for some time. Flora was associated with spring and growth as well as fertility and new life. The festival of Floralia was held at this time, celebrating the start of new life, or the rebirth, and was accompanied by much eating, drinking and dancing, as well as flowers. The old customs of Bealtaine became part of the Floralia festival.
These May Day celebrations continued until the Puritans were in power in the 16th and 17th centuries, where the religious aspects especially were checked. After the Puritans were defeated, May Day became more of a secular festival of having fun, in the form of fetes and carnivals. 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. The maypole became a feature in English towns and villages during the Middle Ages. Residents would find a tall, thin trunk is the woods, bring it to town and drive it into the ground. A town or village always wanted to have a taller maypole than a neighbouring center. Maypoles were adorned with ribbons, flowers and other decorations which varied between regions.
People danced around the maypole, and still do to this day. Dancers hung on to the ribbons and weaved around each other as they circled the pole, men or boys in one direction and women or girls in the other. Eventually, the pole was entwined with ribbon and participants finished up at its base. Maypole dancing became popular in many European countries too. Indeed, it has its origins in Germanic paganism.
Morris dancing also became a favourite 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, which was originally led by Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt. 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.
In many countries, achievements of organized labor are often celebrated on this day and May Day has become synonymous with Labor Day by whatever name. This link stems from a connection between traditional May Day activities and working people. Craft gilds and other groups organized May Day ceremonies and feasts back when the Puritans were in power, much to the rulers’ annoyance. In the 17th century, the mythical Robin Goodfellow became the mock king or priest on May Day and received much flak from working class participants.
May Day has become a celebration by workers of their struggles in the 19th and 20th centuries to gain an eight hour day and other conditions of employment, the right of women to work, and other issues. In the United States, workers fought for an eight hour day after the Civil War, culminating in a widespread strike on 1 May 1886, with six people killed in Chicago. Australia and a number of European countries held large meetings on May Day around 1886 to 1890, supporting a workers’ holiday on this day. In France, May 1 was made an international labor holiday by the International Working Men’s Association in 1889. Since then, many nations have celebrated their labor day on May Day.