This article describes the traditions of May Day and how the May 1st celebration began.
With winter’s retreat, colts and calves kick up their heels and frisk over fresh grass, seedlings seek the sun, and birds call for mates….
And we humans join their revels for one day: during spring’s “May Day” festival, even serious-minded folk put work aside to enjoy Nature’s exuberance!
Origins of May Day
The ancient Celts called it “Beltane”—this day halfway between spring and summer that coincides with the return of fertility to the earth.
Young people would wake on Beltane morning knowing that they could be paired with a mate by sundown! If their courtship continued, the wedding would occur six weeks later, on June’s Midsummer’s Day.
The Maypole Dance
These same young people likely participated in the fertility rites of Beltane by dancing around a living tree to celebrate the fecundity of their community along with the livestock and crops they relied on. This tree later became the familiar May Day Maypole that children delight in now.
Occasionally, over the centuries, the Maypole was banned because of its pagan origins and the bawdy revelry that it sometimes inspired. But it kept reappearing and, over time, the spring dances and festivals associated with it became more accepted, and even anticipated.
Today, some Maypole Dances are quite complex: a choreographed dance of weaving, twirling people plaiting or winding colorful ribbons towards the Maypole and back out again! Did you ever dance around the Maypole as a child? If so, what sort of ribbons did you use? Please share your comments below!
May Day Customs
Here are some joyful May Day traditions marking the return of spring and the renewed gift of life.
- Neighbors may leave baskets of flowers on each other’s doorsteps or doorknobs.
- Kids can go barefoot on May Day for the first time.
- People will crown a “May Queen” for the day’s festivities.
- Beekeepers will move bees on May 1st.
- Fishermen expect to catch fish on May Day.
- On May Day morning, if a maiden gathers dew before sunup and sprinkles her face with it, she will enjoy luck and youthful beauty for the rest of the year.
- Farmers often plant corn, cucumbers, and turnips on this day.
- Villagers may hold theatrical battles between “summer” and “winter” that banish the winter.
- The Kentucky Derby is held on May 1st.
- On May 1st, people in Britain welcome spring by “Bringing in the May,” or gathering cuttings of flowering trees for their homes.
- May 1st in Hawaii is called “Lei Day,” and people will receive prizes this day for wearing the prettiest handmade leis.
What Does “Mayday” Mean?
The term “Mayday” is not related to the “May Day” spring festival but, rather, comes from the French phrase “M’aider” which means, “Help me.” If you hear “Mayday” repeated three times, it is an urgent distress call of the highest order. To signal that you need help but are not in a life-threatening situation, repeat the phrase “Pan-pan” three times when calling for assistance.