Remember the childhood rhyme April showers bring May flowers? Flowers are a big part of May Day celebrations. May Day brings the image of maypoles, collecting flowers, and the delight in finding a surprise basket of flowers on your doorstep. Throughout its history, May Day has traditionally been a joyous celebration of spring, femininity, fertility, and the coming summer.
The first day of May is celebrated in many parts of the world. It is believed it evolved from ancient agricultural and fertility rites of spring. There are signs of the first celebrations in Egypt. However, the majority of the current traditions stem from the Roman Festival, Floralia. This was a five day festival to honor the Goddess Flora with offerings of flowers, dancing, ringing bells, May Queens and erecting a Maypole. Other traditions developed from the ancient celebrations of the Celtic Beltane and the Germanic Walpurgis Night.
Customs and Traditions:
The May Queen would oversee crops and rule the day. Some places also selected May Kings. The crowns were typical made of twigs, leaves, and flowers.
The Maypole was typically fabricated the night before. The men would strip down a birch tree and plant it in the ground; this ceremony was symbolic of fertility rites. The next day, both men and women danced about the Maypole. Several longs ribbons hung from the top of the Maypole holding up a crown of colorful flowers. Each dancer held an end of one of the ribbons. The dancers alternated man and women. All the women would dance in one direction and the men danced in the other direction. The dancers would go under the first person and over the next person, weaving the ribbons about the tree and lowering the ring to the ground. Today, this tradition is still practiced but danced mostly young boys and girls.
The Celts had a similar celebration known as Beltain, Beltane, or Bealtaine which in Gaelic means “Fires of Bel” or “Bright Fires”. The ceremony honored the god of the Sun and the rebirth of the earth. Feasting, games, and bonfires began on the eve of May Day and continued through the next day with a day of bonfires and merrymaking. It was customary for couples to walk through the fires smoke or leap over the flames to insure a successful relationship. Faeries were (and are) abundant on the first day of May. Windows were decorated with flowers and food was left on the doorstep to keep the mischievous faeries out. During this time women would wash their faces with the May Day’s morning dew believing it would bring a good complexion and everlasting beauty.
Those traditions created a wonder medieval holiday that is still celebrated today. We still elect May Queens and Kings and dance around Maypoles.
“The fair maid who, the First of May,
Goes to the field at break of day
And washes in the dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever after handsome be.”People began gathering twigs and flowers to decorate their homes and the lovely tradition of May baskets began. Children would leave baskets made from twigs and filled with flowers on their neighbor’s doorstep, knock, and then hide waiting to see the expression of the lucky recipient.
“Summer is coming, oh, summer is near
with the leaves on the trees and the sky blue and clear
small birds are singing their fond notes so true
and wild flowers are springing in the May morning dew”
-old folk song
In Ireland, yellow primroses are sprinkled outside the doorway to protect the home from evil spirits; in Wales hawthorn is used.
In Scotland, bannocks are a traditional food and on May Day they are marked with a cross. Children roll them down the hills. If the cake lands with the cross facing down it is considered bad luck.
A Finnish tradition includes serving May Day crullers and sima.
Another custom is “maying” or “to go a-Maying”. Maying is simply gathering flowers for May Day celebrations. The line “Here we go gathering nuts in May” in a popular May Day game refers to gathering knots of flower, nuts is a corruption of the word “knot”. In the British Isles, Hawthorn flowers, Crataegus monogyna, come into blossom at the end of April and are commonly “gathered in knots”.
In England in 1644, the Puritan leaders banned May Day celebrations in view of its ties with pagan traditions. Even with the ban, people still managed to celebrate. The ban was eventually overturned and the celebrations strengthen with the Restoration of England.
Today, May Day is celebrated all over Europe and in many countries and in some parts of the United States. In many counties, boys leave maypoles outside their sweetheart’s window.
American celebrations are sporadic and many people don’t celebrate it at all. Mendon, Utah has a huge celebration every year. Pennsylvania holds a Faerie Festival and Hawaii enjoys Lei Day.
May Day has another completely different holiday association. On May 1, 1886 a riot broke out between the Chicago police and workers who had been striking to gain an eight-hour workday. Six strikers were killed. The following day a bomb went off among a group of police officers killing eight. Four men were arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death. This event became known as the Haymarket riots. In 1889, the Working Men’s Association declared May 1st an international working class holiday to commemorate the fallen strikers and to acknowledge the strife of the worker.
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