Many people have heard the term “May Day” before, and most, if not all, know that May Day falls on the first day of the month, which is this Thursday. Little more than that is known about the celebration by many people, though. May 1 is just another ordinary day for most. It is not observed officially in the U.S. or Canada, although it is in many European countries. However, May 1, more than just a holiday, is actually a day that is steeped in tradition and has a history of extravagant cultural celebrations.
May Day and its history of cultural celebrations have spanned throughout many hundreds of years of history, starting with the ancient pagan cultures in Scotland and Ireland. Cultures have traditionally celebrated May 1 as the beginning of Summer, even though the day falls right in the middle of spring. The celebration is a time for people to bid farewell to the cold weather and welcome the sun and its warmth. Many do this by gathering fresh flowers, picking fruit and vegetables, engaging in games and musical activities such as singing and dancing, and even flirting, as the spring and summer months are seen as a time of fertility and new growth after the frozen months of the winter. The pagans celebrated the first of May (or “beltane”, as they called it) in ancient Scotland and Ireland with similar spring fertility celebrations and rituals. The celebration was meant as a time to promote growth of their crops and to help their livestock breed and have more babies. Later, the celebration became more of a time for people to just gather, relax, socialize, and have fun in the newly warm weather.
More commonly known May Day traditions include the crowning of a May Day queen, and occasionally a king as well. The king and queen are crowned to help conduct the activities of the day. Rituals include the filling of a May Day basket with treats, such as candy or flowers. This can be done by either kids or adults. They fill baskets and might leave one secretly on a neighbor or friend’s porch for them to find.
Old folklore says that waking up early on May Day, going outside, and washing ones face with dew would make a person’s skin more beautiful. The day then starts with May Day activities, the most famous of which is the dance around the maypole, which is still done for a fun festivity in some places in Europe and the United States. For the maypole dance, a tall, wooden pole is usually set up in the center of the city, and long, colorful ribbons are attached to it, streaming down from the top. Each dancing participant grabs a ribbon, and then they all dance around the pole. One tradition that also occurs at some traditional May Day celebrations is that some men will be dressed in masks, and they will attempt to tag women of childbearing age. If a woman is tagged, folklore says she will be pregnant within the next year.
Many still attempt to keep the spirit of May Day alive by festively re-creating the old traditions in local celebrations, because the history of May Day cultural celebrations goes back for centuries, and even though it is not a commonly celebrated holiday anymore. Even if there is are no maypole dances or May Day baskets tomorrow, happy May Day anyway, and happy spring.
By Laura Clark