May Day is a spring holiday that has been observed by many cultures for many centuries; today we think of it as a day of being outside, frolicking around a Maypole and giving paper baskets of flowers to our neighbors and loved ones. It is very interesting to learn about the history of May Day celebrations to see how the traditions developed.
Ancient peoples, even the Egyptians, celebrated rites of fertility and agricultural rebirth. The Celtic festival of Beltane was held on May 1, the day thought to divide the year in half, between the light and the dark. Setting a new fire was a symbolic Beltane new year’s rite that was performed through the Isles–the fire was to celebrate the return of life and fertility to the world. The fire was thought to lend life to the springtime sun. Cattle were driven through the fire to purify them, and men with their sweethearts passed through the smoke, seeking good luck.
But it was the Romans’ five-day festival of Floralia from April 28 to May 2 to honor the goddess Flora with offerings of flowers, feasting and dancing that inspired many of our May Day traditions. The Romans brought in the rituals of Floralia when they settled in the British Isles; these rituals eventually were merged with those of the Celtic celebration of Beltane. They celebrated the coming of warm weather and the start of the planting season.
Trees have always been linked to spring festivals where they were symbols of vitality and fertility in nature. Youths would cut down a tree, cut off the branches, leaving a few at the top, wrap it with violets like the Roman god Attis, and carry it at sunrise into their villages while blowing horns and flutes. By the Middle Ages, every English village had its Maypole. The bringing of the Maypole from the woods for the day was a grand occasion and accompanied by great merrymaking and rejoicing. Maypoles could be any size, and many villages vied with one another to see who could have the tallest Maypole. Historians believe the first Maypole dance originated as part of a fertility ritual where the pole represented male fertility and flower baskets and wreaths symbolized female fertility.
Men and women danced around the Maypole. Several long ribbons hung from the top of the pole holding up a crown of colorful flowers. Each dancer, alternating men and women, held one end of a ribbon. All the women would dance in one direction and the men danced In the other. The dances would go under the first person and over the next person, weaving the ribbons around the tree and lowering the rind to the ground. In addition to Maypole dancing, morris dancing is also popular–this is a type of English folk dance choreographed and performed by a group of men, generally, wearing bells.
May Day celebrations were discouraged during the reign of the Puritans. When their influence was over, May Day customs in England were again observed, but without some of the same enthusiasm. In America, the holiday was not as popular. But during the 19th and 20th centuries, May Basket Day was celebrated across the United States, where baskets, created with flowers, candies and little tokens, were hung on the doors of friends and loved ones.
Children singing and dancing around a Maypole, tied with colorful streamers or ribbons, choosing a Queen of the May to rule over the festival, and sharing flowers with loved ones are the quaint May Day rituals that have come down to us.
May Day also has another totally unrelated holiday association. On May 1, 1886, a riot broke out between the Chicago Police and striking workers who wanted an eight-hour workday. Six strikers were killed and the next day a bomb went off among a group of police officers, killing eight. These events known as the Haymarket riots led to the creation of May 1 as an international working class holiday to honor the fallen strikers and to recognize the worker’s plight.