May Day is not an overly prominent holiday in America. Yet it does have a long history as one of the world’s principal festivals. It seems to stretch back in time forever. The origin o f May Day as a day for celebration dates back to before the birth of Christ. And like many ancient festivals it has a Pagan connection.
For the Druids of the British Isles, May 1 was the 2nd most important holiday of the year. It was when the festival of Beltane was held and was thought to be the day that divided the year in half. The other half was to be ended with the Samhain on Nov. 1. The custom was the setting of the fire, which was thought to lend life to the burgeoning springtime sun. Men, with their sweethearts, passed through the smoke for good luck. In Sweden, fires were built and Old Man Winter was burned in effigy.
Then the Romans came to occupy the British Isles. The beginning of May was a popular feast time for the Romans and it was devoted to the worship of Flora, the goddess of flowers. It was a 5 day celebration, from April 20 to May 2, called Floralia. Gradually the rituals of Floralia were added to those of Beltane, with many of today’s customs of May Day bearing similarities with both festivals.
May Day observance was discouraged during the Puritans reign, but was revived after they lost power. It had lost its robust force, and was regarded more as a day of joy and merriment for children. Tradition has it that on the first day of May, girls wake at dawn to gather wildflowers in baskets to be left on doorsteps. The boys would create all sorts of mischief to disguise their awkwardness as suitors. The day culminates in dancing around a maypole to tame the high spirits brought on by the perfumed air, warmed by the sun.
People have long believed that washing one’s face in the May Day morning dew would beautify the skin. Tradition also has it that on May Day, all the girls are lovely and all the boys are handsome. No wonder that in Italy, it is regarded as the happiest day of the year.
Maypoles were in every English village by the Middle Ages. The bringing of the Maypole from the woods was a great occasion, with much rejoicing and merrymaking. The poles were all sizes and villages would see who could produce the tallest maypole. The Maypole was usually set up for a day in the villages, but in London and larger towns they were set up permanently. The Maypole would be decorated with flowers. The fairest of maidens would be chosen as Queen of the May, male dancers with bells strapped to their arms and legs would provide the rhythm for the girls to circle the pole, with streamer in hand. The Maypole or May tree symbolized the tree of life. And trees have always been the symbol of great vitality and fertility of nature.
In the US May Day is celebrated by dancing and singing around a Maypole, tied with colorful streamers, choosing a May Queen, and by hanging May baskets on the doorknobs of folks, all remnants of the old European traditions. The Maypole is still the centerpiece of garden parties and festivals in Britain. The reveal of the pole begins with a parade of children bringing out the decorated pole and “planting” it in a prepared hole.
It doesn’t take a village green to put on a spring pageant, just a sun-filled backyard or a clearing in the woods. Any of us can mark the return of nature’s prettiest blooms by giving flowers to family and friends. You can decorate a paper cone with ribbons and fill with blossoms to hang on doorknobs. To keep blooms fresh, wrap stems in damp paper towels, then a square of tin foil.