May Day on May 1 is an ancient Northern Hemisphere spring festival and usually a public holiday; it is also a traditional spring holiday in many cultures. Dances, singing, and cake are usually part of the celebrations that the day includes.
In the late 19th Century, May Day was chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago. In those countries that celebrate International Workers’ Day, the day may also be referred to as “May Day” but it is a different celebration from the traditional May Day.
Traditional May Day Origins and Celebrations:
The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, held April 27 during the Roman Republic era, and with the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane, most commonly held on April 30. The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of Spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer.
As Europe became Christianized, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and May Day changed into a popular secular celebration. A significant celebration of May Day occurs in Germany where it is one of several days on which St. Walburga, credited with bringing Christianity to Germany, is celebrated. The secular versions of May Day, observed in Europe and America, may be best known for their traditions of dancing around the maypole and crowning the Queen of May. Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of “May baskets,” small baskets of sweets or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbors’ doorsteps.
Since the 18th Century, many Roman Catholics have observed May — and May Day — with various May devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary In works of art, school skits, and so forth, Mary’s head will often be adorned with flowers in a May crowning. May 1st is also one of two feast days of the Catholic patron saint of workers St Joseph the Worker, a carpenter, husband to Mother Mary, and surrogate father of Jesus. Replacing another feast to St. Joseph, this date was chosen by the Pope Pius XII in 1955 to create as a counterpoint to the Communist International Workers Day celebrations on May Day.
Beginning in the late 20th century, many neopagans began reconstructing traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival.
Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a maypole. Much of this tradition derives from the pagan Anglo-Saxon customs held during “Þrimilci-mōnaþ” (the Old English name for the month of May meaning Month of Three Milkings) along with many Celtic traditions.
May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. May Day is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility (of the soil, livestock, and people) and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. Since the reform of the Catholic calendar, May 1 is the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, the patron saint of workers. Seeding has been completed by this date and it was convenient to give farm laborers a day off. Perhaps the most significant of the traditions is the maypole, around which traditional dancers circle with ribbons.
The May Day bank holiday, on the first Monday in May, was traditionally the only one to affect the state school calendar, although new arrangements in some areas to even out the length of school terms mean that Good Friday (a common law holiday) and Easter Monday (a bank holiday), which vary from year to year, may also fall during term time. The Spring Bank Holiday on the first Monday in May was created in 1978; May Day itself – May 1 – is not a public holiday in England (unless it falls on a Monday). In February 2011, the UK Parliament was reported to be considering scrapping the bank holiday associated with May Day, replacing it with a bank holiday in October, possibly coinciding with Trafalgar Day (celebrated on October 21), to create a “United Kingdom Day.”
May Day was abolished and its celebration banned by puritan parliaments during the Interregnum, but reinstated with the restoration of Charles II in 1660. May 1, 1707, was the day the Act of Union came into effect, joining England and Scotland to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.
In Oxford, it is traditional for May Morning revelers to gather below the Great Tower of Magdalen College at 6:00 a.m. to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals as a conclusion to the previous night’s celebrations. It is then thought to be traditional for some people to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell. However this has actually only been fashionable since the 1970s, possibly due to the presence of television cameras. In recent years, the bridge has been closed on 1 May to prevent people from jumping, as the water under the bridge is only 2 feet (61 cm) deep and jumping from the bridge has resulted in serious injury in the past. There are still people who insist on climbing the barriers and leaping into the water, causing themselves injury.
In Durham, students of the University of Durham gather on Prebend’s Bridge to see the sunrise and enjoy festivities, folk music, dancing, madrigal singing and a barbecue breakfast. This is an emerging Durham tradition, with patchy observance since 2001.
Kingsbury Episcopi, Somerset, has seen its yearly May Day Festival celebrations on the May bank holiday Monday burgeon in popularity in the recent years. Since it was reinstated 21 years ago it has grown in size, and on May 5th 2014 thousands of revellers were attracted from all over the South West to enjoy the festivities, with BBC Somerset covering the celebrations. These include traditional maypole dancing and morris dancing, as well as a number of excellent contemporary music acts; artists such as Mad Dog Mcrea and the Three Daft Monkeys have played in previous years. In 2014, the Green Man Stage was graced with four acts, including traditional Somerset folk singer Mary Bateman, upbeat folk act The Roving Crows, solo acoustic artist Gaz Brookfield and the Lounge Lizards.
Whitstable, Kent, hosts a good example of more traditional May Day festivities, where the Jack in the Green festival was revived in 1976 and continues to lead an annual procession of morris dancers through the town on the May Bank Holiday. A separate revival occurred in Hastings in 1983 and has become a major event in the town calendar. A traditional Sweeps Festival is performed over the May bank holiday in Rochester, Kent, where the Jack in the Green is woken at dawn on May 1 by Morris dancers.
At 7:15 p.m. on May 1 each year, the Kettle Bridge Clogs morris dancing side dance across Barming Bridge (otherwise known as the Kettle Bridge), which spans the River Medway near Maidstone, to mark the official start of their morris dancing season. Also known as Ashtoria Day in Northern parts of rural Cumbria. A celebration of unity and female bonding. Although not very well known, it is often cause for huge celebration.
The Maydayrun involves thousands of motorbikes taking a 55-mile (89 km) trip from London (Locksbottom) to the Hastings seafront, East Sussex. The event has been taking place for almost 30 years now and has grown in interest from around the country, both commercially and publicly. The event is not officially organized; the police only manage the traffic, and volunteers manage the parking.
Padstow in Cornwall holds its annual Obby-Oss (Hobby Horse) day of festivities. This is believed to be one of the oldest fertility rites in the UK; revellers dance with the Oss through the streets of the town and even through the private gardens of the citizens, accompanied by accordion players and followers dressed in white with red or blue sashes who sing the traditional “May Day” song. The whole town is decorated with springtime greenery, and every year thousands of onlookers attend. Prior to the 19th-century distinctive May day celebrations were widespread throughout West Cornwall, and are being revived in St. Ives and Penzance.
Kingsand, Cawsand and Millbrook in Cornwall celebrate Flower Boat Ritual on the May Day bank holiday. A model of the ship The Black Prince is covered in flowers and is taken in procession from the Quay at Millbrook to the beach at Cawsand where it is cast adrift. The houses in the villages are decorated with flowers and people traditionally wear red and white clothes. There are further celebrations in Cawsand Square with Morris dancing and May pole dancing.
At the University of St Andrews, some of the students gather on the beach late on April 30 and run into the North Sea at sunrise on May Day, occasionally naked. This is accompanied by torch-lit processions and much elated celebration.
Both Edinburgh and Glasgow organize Mayday festivals and rallies. In Edinburgh, the Beltane Fire Festival is held on the evening of May eve and into the early hours of May Day on the city’s Calton Hill. An older Edinburgh tradition has it that young women who climb Arthur’s Seat and wash their faces in the morning dew will have lifelong beauty.
In London the May Day march and rally, organized by the London May Day Committee (South East Region Trades Councils), gather together in Clerkenwell Green near the Marx Memorial Library before marching to Trafalgar Square for a rally with speeches from representatives of local, national and international trades unions and campaigning organizations. This event always takes place on May 1st with the intention to reinstate May 1st, regardless of what day it falls on, as a national holiday. More images and information of London’s May Day rally is covered by the “Working Class Heroes” project.
Celebrations among the younger generations take place on May Day Eve, see Walpurgis Night in Finland, most prominent being the afternoon “crowning” of statues in towns around the country with a student cap.
May Day is known as Vappu in Finnish. This is a public holiday that is the only carnival-style street festivity in the country. People young and old, particularly students, party outside, picnic and wear caps or other decorative clothing.
Some Finns make a special lemonade from lemons, brown sugar, and yeast called “sima.” It contains very little alcohol, so even children can drink it. A similar product can also be bought in all stores. Some Finns also make doughnuts and a crisp pastry fried in oil made from a similar, more liquid dough.
Balloons and other decorations like paper streamers are seen everywhere.
May Day or “Spring Day” (Kevadpüha) is a national holiday in Estonia celebrating the arrival of spring.
More traditional festivities take place throughout the night before and into the early hours of May 1, on the Walpurgis Night (Volbriöö).
On May 1, 1561, King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. He decided to offer a lily of the valley each year to the ladies of the court. At the beginning of the 20th century, it became custom to give a sprig of lily of the valley, a symbol of springtime, on May 1. The government permits individuals and workers’ organizations to sell them tax-free. Nowadays, people may present loved ones either with bunches of lily of the valley or dog rose flowers.
In rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the wrapping of a Maibaum (maypole). Young people use this opportunity to party, while the day itself is used by many families to get some fresh air. Motto: “Tanz in den Mai!” (“Dance into May!”). In the Rhineland, May 1 is also celebrated by the delivery of a maypole, a tree covered in streamers to the house of a girl the night before. The tree is typically from a love interest, though a tree wrapped only in white streamers is a sign of dislike. Women usually place roses or rice in the form of a heart at the house of their beloved one. It is common to stick the heart to a window or place it in front of the doormat.
On leap years, it is the responsibility of the women to place the maypole.
All the action is usually done secretly and it is an individual’s choice whether to give a hint of their identity or stay anonymous.
May Day was not established as a public holiday until 1933. As Labor Day, many political parties and unions host activities related to work and employment.
May Day has been celebrated in Ireland since pagan times as the feast of Bealtaine and in latter times as Mary’s day. Traditionally, bonfires were lit to mark the coming of summer and to banish the long nights of winter. Officially Irish May Day holiday is the first Monday in May. Old traditions such as bonfires are no longer widely observed, though the practice still persists in some places across the country. Limerick, Clare and many other people in other counties still keep on this tradition such as the town of Arklow in Co. Wicklow.
On May Day, Bulgarians celebrate Irminden (or Yeremiya, Eremiya, Irima, Zamski den). The holiday is associated with snakes and lizards and rituals are made in order to protect people from them. The name of the holiday comes from the prophet Jeremiah, but its origins are most probably pagan.
It is said that on the days of the Holy Forty or Annunciation snakes come out of their burrows, and on Irminden their king comes out. Old people believe that those working in the fields on this day will be bitten by a snake in summer.
In Western Bulgaria people light fires, jump over them and make noises to scare snakes. Another custom is to prepare “podnici” (special clay pots made for baking bread).
This day is especially observed by pregnant women so that their offspring do not catch “yeremiya” — an illness due to evil powers.
On May Day, the Romanians celebrate the arminden (or armindeni), the beginning of summer, symbolically tied with the protection of crops and farm animals. The name comes from Slavonic Jeremiinŭ dĭnĭ, meaning prophet Jeremiah’s day, but the celebration rites and habits of this day are apotropaic and pagan (possibly originating in the cult of the god Pan).
The day is also called ziua pelinului (mugwort day) or ziua bețivilor (drunkards’ day) and it is celebrated to insure good wine in autumn and, for people and farm animals alike, good health and protection from the elements of nature (storms, hail, illness, pests). People would have parties in the nature with lăutari (fiddlers), for those who could afford it. There, it is customary to roast and eat lamb, also eat new mutton cheese and drink mugwort-flavored wine or just red wine to refresh the blood and get protection from diseases. On the way back, the men wear lilac or mugwort flowers on their hats.
Other apotropaic rites include, in some areas of the country, people washing their faces with the morning dew (for good health) and adorning the gates for good luck and abundance with green branches or with birch saplings (for the houses with maiden girls). The entries to the animals’ shelters are also adorned with green branches. All branches are left in place until the wheat harvest when they are used in the fire which will bake the first bread from the new wheat.
On May Day eve, country women do not work in the field as well as in the house to avoid devastating storms and hail coming down on the village.
Arminden is also ziua boilor (oxen day) and thus the animals are not to be used for work, or else they could die or their owners could get ill.
It is said that the weather is always good on May Day to allow people to celebrate.
The more traditional festivities have moved to the day before, Walpurgis Night (“Valborgsmässoafton”), known in some locales as simply “Last of April.”
The first of May is instead celebrated as International Workers’ Day.
May Day is celebrated in some parts of the Province of British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario.
In Toronto, On the morning of May 1, various Morris Dancing troops from Toronto and Hamilton gather on the road by Grenadier Cafe, in High Park to “dance in the May”. The dancers and crowd then gather together and sing traditional May Day songs such as Hal-An-Tow and Padstow.
Celebrations often take place not on May 1 but during the Victoria Day long weekend, later in the month and when the weather is likely to be better. The honor of having the longest continually observed May Day in the British Commonwealth – since 1870 – is claimed by the BC city of New Westminster.
Locally known as Miners’ Day, or Laborers’ Day, Drumheller’s May Day was the traditional spring holiday blended with International Workers’ Day. The day typically began with a large procession of miners, workers and families. With perhaps two thousand participants or more in the march, the May Day procession was larger than the Dominion Day Parade.
For the parade, workers carried banners of their union local and placards with political or social declarations. During the height of the communist influence in the Valley between the wars, large and small red flags were carried by hand, attached to bicycles, or baby carriages.
Although May Day was big in Drumheller, it was not universally loved – especially by law enforcement. On more than one occasion, mounted police were ordered, on horseback, to forcibly confiscate Red Banners and any pro-labor placards.
Drumheller’s Miners’ Day was also an opportunity for picnic speeches. Labor organizers such as Kid Burns, Slim Evans, and Pat Lenihan gave fiery speeches, often in Newcastle, as hundreds eagerly listened and picnicked. The police, out in force but often in dress uniform watched on from a short distance.
The day wasn’t complete without ice cream, contests, dances, sports, and games. Some of the events were held at Newcastle Park, some downtown. Everyone who worked at the mines had the day off, and it became an unofficial school holiday too.
“I can recall the coal loading contests, climbing the greasy pole for the big ham that was tied to the top; releasing a greased pig amongst the huge throng of miners and their families; the games of quoits and the horseshoes; playing cricket, and the bagpipes.” Ido Michielin, Drumheller Valley Coal Miner.
Drumheller’s Miners’ Day disappeared in the 1950s, but was revived for the Valley’s Mining Centennial in 2011. Now known as the May Day Miners’ Festival and held the first weekend in May, the popular event focuses on remembering the Valley’s mine history, and honors the more than 207 coal miners killed on the job. The procession of coal miners, and mining families marches to the Miners’ Memorial on Centre Street. Placards carried now have the names coal miners who worked in the Valley or were killed here. RCMP and other uniformed officers are now active participants in the day’s events. Dances, music, sports events, and food are usually part of the weekend-long community-wide celebrations.
May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. In some parts of the United States, May Baskets are made. These are small baskets usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone’s doorstep. The giver rings the bell and runs away. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver; if caught, a kiss is exchanged.
Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. vary greatly from region to region and many unite both the holiday’s “Green Root” (pagan) and “Red Root” (labor) traditions. In 2006, after the passing of the “Illegal Immigration Control Act,” May Day was the date of protests, largely around the issue of immigration reform.
May Day celebrations were common at women’s colleges and academic institutions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a tradition that continues at Bryn Mawr College to this day.
In Hawaii, May Day is also known as Lei Day, and it is normally set aside as a day to celebrate island culture in general and the culture of the Native Hawaiians in particular. Invented by poet and local newspaper columnist Eric Kosciuszko in the 1920s, it has since been adopted by state and local government, as well as local residents, and has taken on the sense of a general spring celebration. The first official Lei Day was proposed in 1927 in Honolulu by poet and artist Don Blanding. Leonard “Red” and Ruth Hawk composed “May Day Is Lei Day in Hawai’i,” the traditional holiday song. Originally it was a contemporary fox trot, later rearranged as the Hawaiian hula song performed today.
The traditional May Day is not widely celebrated in Australia, partly due to the difference in season in the southern hemisphere. Instead, unofficial commemorations in honor of International Workers’ Day occur on this day. May Day is celebrated as a public holiday in only one territory in Australia, the Northern Territory where the public holiday occurs on the first Monday in May, but the celebrations are also linked more to Labor Day than the traditional May Day.