May Day Traditions
The first day of May is known as May Day, a time of year when warmer weather brings newly grown flowers and blossoms to the trees. A lovely month of the year, it is the time when people’s thoughts move from winter to the coming summer. Even though summer only officially begins in June, May opens the door; and May Day has had a rich history in England for over 2,000 years.
The Romans celebrated the cycle of life at the festival of Floralia from the end of April until the early days of May. Flora was the Goddess of fruit and flowers (nothing to do with butter at that time). The festival was celebrated with flowers, dancing and colourful clothes, not too unlike our celebrations today that still involve Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and dancing around a Maypole.
The great Celtic fire festival of Beltane also marked May Day celebrations. Beltane is the Gaelic name for both the month of May, and the festival of May Day. The great Beltane fires were built to encourage fields and trees to produce plentiful crops, and the fire was seen to cleanse the impurities of the land before the coming summer to increase fertility. Similarly, courting and wooing played a large part in the celebrations.
“Bringing in the May” meant rising before dawn to wash hands and face in the early morning dew to encourage beauty, and going out into the fields and woods to collect flowers and greenery to make into wreaths and garlands.
The maypole is thought to come from the ancient Saxon, Viking and other pagan traditions involving the worshipping of trees, and fertility rites, but though the origins are not entirely clear maypoles have been a crucial part of May Day celebrations for hundreds of years in England. The maypole itself is a tall wooden pole either put up every year, or permanently standing on a village green. Ribbons tied to the top are held by dancers who dance around the pole weaving and un-weaving the ribbons in colourful and intricate patterns.
The old tradition of crowning a May Queen seems to have come down the ages from the Roman celebration of Diana, Goddess of Beauty. The May Queen was chosen from young, unmarried women and was crowned with greenery. In later years this idea was adopted by the Catholic Church, and on May 1st many Catholic parishes hold a May crowning, dedicated to Mary, Mother of Jesus.
These days, May Day celebrations tend to fall on the first Monday in the month to match the new May Day Bank Holiday, giving the general public time to celebrate with a day off work and school.
That’s a good enough reason to celebrate in itself!