May Day is a holiday that slips many people by, yet for some it is full of meaning. The history of May Day and the May Pole tradition is thousands of years old, and is rooted in the Celtic cultures of the Northern Hemisphere. May Day was, and still is, known as Beltane; a festival for the celebration of the life, fertility and summer.
May 1 was once considered the start of summer, and the other season, winter, started on November 1. Many pre-Christian Celtic people split the seasons into two in this way, and Beltane marked a half way point in the year. It was celebrated with much optimism; the sun thawed out the people and the land, and flowers and animals sprang to life in the new-found warmth. The strength of the sun is said to finally overcome the darkness of the winter on May Day, and takes it’s place to bring life to the planet.
For Pagans of ancient and modern times, the winter is a time to honor death, and the summer a time to honor life. Beltane, being the half way point between death and life, dark and light, is a sacred day of “no time” where the veils between the physical and ethereal worlds are at their thinnest. The fairies are said to be out in all their mischief on the eve of Beltane, and so traditions often involved offerings, such as leaving flowers or food out for them.
Beltane is the cross-over, and represents a coming change in the human cycle, which reflects the turning of the seasons. Winter is a time that can feel dreary, and it can start to take it’s toil on the soul. Short days, grey skies, and cold temperatures begin to wear people down, and in ancient times this would be coupled by a gradual decline in food supplies. Winter, back then, would be a very difficult time indeed. The coming of summer, and the festival of Beltane, were times of great hope; crops and grasslands became full of life again, animals bred, and the warmth of the sun thawed out human soul.
As life becomes the pre-dominant force, ancient civilizations would celebrate Beltane with highly energetic fire displays, field frolicking, and of course dancing round the May pole. The word Beltane translates to bright fire, and the reason for the bonfires may be in celebration of the sun; the Bel fire was lit in order to invoke Bel, the Sun God. Myths surrounding Beltane very often describe a battle between two deities, or a battle between summer and winter, and on May 1 summer prevails.
Pagan celebrations old and new still celebrate Beltane with feasts, festivities, fires, and yet more frolicking. Across the world some of the ancient traditions of Beltane still exist, often in evolved or nullified forms. In Britain for example, Beltane traditions are still quite strong on May Day and include the crowning of the May queen, carnivals, Morris dancing, where many men dressed in bells perform tribal dance, and the dancing of the May pole. The ancient history is still visible across much of Europe.
The May pole is actually, historically speaking, a phallic symbol, and the dancing around it an ancient fertility rite. The May pole is perhaps the most famous tradition associated with modern May Day, and it had equal importance for Celtic Beltane festivals. A huge pole is decorated with flowers and wreaths, a potent symbol of the fertility of summer. Then, boys and girls hold on to ribbons connected to the pole, and dance opposite ways, interwinding their ribbons as they duck and dive between each other. The dance seems to perfectly symbolize life, and the interwinding of masculine and feminine energies. The pattern was also believed to indicate patterns of the harvest, and may have been a sort of tool for divination.
The history of the May Pole and May Day have their roots in Beltane. Today May Day has many different meanings, and has found it’s place in Christianity, International Workers’ Day movements, Labour Day, and as a much needed bank holiday weekend. For some, May Day will be a time for relaxing, but for others’ it will be a time for celebrating the forces of life overcoming death, light overcoming darkness, and summer overcoming winter.
By Matthew Warburton