The History and Traditions of May Day
Like most holidays, May Day’s origins date back to the pre-Christian era. May Day is somewhat unique since its meaning as a holiday was never as cemented by the Christians with a religious connotation the way that, for example, the Spring Equinox is equated with Easter. Without this spiritual grounding, it seems the day has faded somewhat from the collective psyche over time, and has been co-opted by governments and socialists commemorating the “Haymarket affair” an 1886 bombing in Chicago.
Regardless of its shrouded meaning and purpose, today May Day remains a day of commemoration in the Western world. We are going to delve into its history, traditions, and meaning.
Origin of May Day Celebrations
Like most holidays, May Day history goes back into the Pagan celebrations that were centered around the movement of the seasons and the stars. Most holidays were derived from these previous traditions and thus continue to fall on significant solar/lunar/cosmic events.
May Day is a notice of the beginning of summer and was traditionally celebrated on the 27th or so of April. It was a day for the Roman Floralia festivities that honored Flora, the flower goddess. This was a day of fertility and by the era of the Roman Empire, a week of gladiatorial combat and shows by prostitutes were commonplace.
By the Dark Ages, May Day had begun to be a little Christianized – first by the Germans who turned the 30th of April into Walpurgis Night. Walpurga was an abbotess in Francia during the 8th century who traveled from England to Francia (ancient Germanic France) and worked to convert the still pagan Germans who lived there. Eventually, this somehow transformed into the “Witch’s Night” due to local superstition and belief that this was a day the witches met deep in the woods. Versions of the witch’s night still exist throughout Northern and Eastern Europe.
Overtime May Day began to take on more secular meanings, though the veneration of the Virgin Mary is commonplace in many Catholic areas. The May basket and the dancing around the Maypole, for example, became common festivities.
A more modern concept is the political focus on workers’ rights. The Haymarket affair is a day where workers in Chicago demonstrated for an 8-hour workday. Things turned violent when an explosive was set off. The aftermath led to the adoption of the workday most in the United States are familiar with today.
In over 80 countries across the world, this day is commonly known as a form of Labor Day. Socialist countries often mark this day as a general day for workers’ rights with some staging massive patriotic events to celebrate the state.
A mayday call from a sinking ship is derived from the repurposing of a French word, and is not associated with the day as many believe.
May Day Traditions
In England, many May Day traditions became favorites among the peasantry including crowning the May Queen, dancing around the Maypole and the exchanging of flowers and gifts. Many of these traditions come from the Germanic Saxon and Celtic origins of the people. The English Morris dance was usually done on this day as well. Even in the Roman days this was more a celebration of the people rather than the aristocracy and became a standard day for farmers to take off during the seeding of the fields.
Places like Oxford, Kent, Somerset, and Durham have established their own traditions around bridge jumping and song singing over the centuries.
The May pole dance, symbolic for “dancing into May” is common all over Europe.
German countries and the Irish will light bonfires on this day.
The Greeks mark the day as the day of victory of life over death (winter giving way to summer) Wildflowers are a symbol used in these celebrations.
May Day Celebration Activities Today
Though the holiday has lost popularity over time, it is far from dead. Many countries still maintain a fair amount of activity to mark the day.
There are many May Day celebration ideas you can still do today. Amongst those who enjoy crafts, the creation and gifting of May Day baskets is finding new popularity. The internet, specifically Pinterest, is awash with smart basket ideas -even going so far as to handcraft the baskets themselves.
There are also many flower based decorations amongst these ideas with spring wreaths being a modern favorite.
Planting new flowers and working in a garden are probably the most traditional ways to get back to the roots of the holiday. For more inspiration, check out F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tales of the Jazz Age’ or ‘May Day’ as it’s also known on Geeker. It tells the story of a series of events taking place around spring.