Monday, April 29, 2013

For the May Day Is the Great Day...

May Day by Kate Greenaway

by Lauren Gilbert

When I was a child, I read of May baskets In Louisa May Alcott’s writing (Jack and Jill has a whole chapter about the making and hanging of May baskets).  With May Day as a spring celebration, May baskets, dancing around May poles and other activities seemed like so much fun.  In the 1970’s, Songs from the Wood by Jethro Tull reminded me of the pre-Christian ceremonies associated with the day.  May Day has also acquired other connotations with the Workers Movements.   Although not as widely celebrated as it once was, it is still a bank holiday in Great Britain.  May Day has significance on many levels and its traditions endure.  A few of the old traditions are discussed here today.

The first of May has been celebrated as a spring festival in western countries for centuries.  The ancient Gaelic festival of Beltane celebrating the return of the sun at the beginning of summer was held at the time when the sun was half-way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice.   It fell roughly at the equivalent of May 7th, varying from year to year.  Fires were set to help the sun, and it was thought to be good luck to pass through the smoke.   

Supposedly, Beltane was one of the two great celebrations of the Druids.  The ancient Romans also held a spring celebration, a five-day festival called Floralia in honor of the goddess of flowers, named Flora.  This fell roughly at about the same time as Beltane, and, of course, the Romans brought it with them to England.  Over time, the Roman customs blended with the Gaelic traditions.  These traditions celebrated the beginning of the growing season.  Gathering flowers (“bringing home the May”), making garlands, giving flowers to friends and neighbors have their roots in these spring celebrations.
In time, another tradition came to be associated with May Day: the selection of a May Queen, who may also be known as the Maiden.   The earliest references go back to medieval times, but the tradition could go back even further.  The May Queen might have symbolized the goddess of flowers, purity, strength and new growth.  This may be derived at least in part from the Roman goddess of spring (named  Maia).    Once the May Queen was selected, the dancing began, sometimes around the Maiden, sometimes around a May Pole.  

During medieval times, a May Day association with the Virgin Mary began, which included special altar decorations dedicated to her.  Traditionally, Mary is specially venerated in May.   (Being selected May Queen seems rather similar to the honor of being selected to play the Virgin Mary in Nativity pageants.)
The ancient May Pole custom is shared by England, Germany and Sweden, and countries neighboring them.   A tall pole, decorated with flowers and greenery, with long ribbons fastened on the top, was set into the ground.  Dancers, each holding a ribbon, dance around the pole, weaving the ribbons into a braid or net, depending on the pattern in which they dance.  Traditionally made of hawthorn or birch, the pole evokes a pagan past , possibly connected to Germanic myths of fertility, and the Norse myth of the tree that links the heavens to the underworld.   May poles still make an appearance today.   While in England it is linked primarily with May Day, in other areas it is also featured at mid-summer and other festivals as well.  Morris dancing has also been a long tradition at the May Day celebration.
Yet another interesting May Day custom involves washing one’s face in May dew.  There was a belief that dew gathered early on the first day of May would make one’s complexion beautiful, so girls and women would go out and rub their faces with dew, hoping to heal pimples and remove freckles.   
As with so many fun things, May Day celebrations were squashed by Cromwell and the Puritans.  After the Restoration, Charles II restored the festival with an enormous May Pole but it never really revived completely.   It was (and still is) celebrated on a local level in England with the traditions mentioned here and others, but had lost some of its significance by Victorian times.
Then, late in the 19th century, the first of May of 1890, May Day, became the international labor movement’s day, a day of celebration for, and of, the worker.  Demonstrations and strikes were held that year, and in subsequent years.   It also became heavily associated with Communism.  Interestingly in 1955, the Catholic Church dedicated May 1st to St. Joseph the Worker.  This holiday celebrating the international labor movement is still celebrated in many countries.   In the United Kingdom, it is a bank holiday and protests still occur, even while the traditional May Day celebrations are still held in different areas.
Interestingly, however, interest in the ancient May Day traditions has been renewed, possibly due to increased interest in history or a revival of interest in pagan celebrations.   At any rate, more spring celebrations of May Day are appearing. I think May baskets would be lovely.  Here is a site that offers detailed instructions (click  here and they sound delightful!  Shall we try it?

Sources include:
“Traditions and Customs of May Day.”
The Holiday Spot website.  “HISTORY OF MAY DAY History and Origin.”
Historic  “May Day Celebrations.”
History Today.  "May Days and After" by Chris Wrigley.  Vol. 40 Issue 6 1990.  On line at 
Hillman’s Hyperlinked and Searchable CHAMBERS’ BOOK OF DAYS.  “May 1st.”
Title is a quote from “Cup of Wonder” on SONGS FROM THE WOOD by Jethro Tull.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.


Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel,lives in Florida.  Her website is

1 comment:

  1. Sounds wonderful, though here in the Southern Hemisphere we can't go a Maying in the middle of autumn. ;) We do celebrate Labour Day, but in Victoria it's the first Monday in March, different in other states. Nice to know it's still a bank holiday in England.


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