The Origins of May Day

May 1 can be thought of as a time for celebration when countries around the globe partake in acknowledgment and joyful excitement at the beginning of spring.

Astronomical aspects aside, some mark the day with dancing around maypoles and anonymously leaving flower baskets on doorsteps. However, others view this holiday with a more serious attitude. 

The notion of celebrating the turning of the seasons and beginning of spring dates back at least as far as the Romans with their weeklong festival of honoring the goddess, Flora. Upon reaching the British Isles, their festival combined with the already present Celtic holiday of Beltane.

May 1 falls in the middle of the March equinox and June summer solstice. This location on the calendar is perhaps why all the different roots of the day hold one aspect in common: the welcoming of spring and the hopes for new life and healthy change. 

According to Ancient Origins, the Roman festival of Floralia was held between April 28 and May 3. Flora was viewed as the goddess of fertility, spring and flowers. She was honored in the hopes that crops would flourish and livestock would prosper. The week was filled with dancing, theatrics, the gathering of flowers and sacrifices to her. 

Julius Caesar declared the festival a Roman holiday, beginning in the goddess Venus’ month of love and lasting until May. This touch of romance has similar links to the Celtic’s version of spring’s beginning, known as Beltane. 

Ancient Celts observed Beltane, meaning the return of the sun or bright fire, with dance, bonfires and decorations. They believed the sun was held prisoner during colder months and was released every spring to reign over the summer skies. They marked its freedom with ceremonies of fire, feasting and rituals.

A living tree was danced around with prayers of bountiful crops and full lives. Courtship was a possibility for young people and, if they found someone by sunset, they continued courting until the Midsummer’s Day of June. Hence, a June bride and another tradition in the history of May 1 came to be.

The byproduct of combining the Roman and Celt festivities became viewed largely as a pagan holiday when Europe turned predominantly Christian. Its more religious aspects were replaced with the notions of spring flowers and growth generally thought of today. After a brief hiatus in England during a civil war, May Day returned strongly in 1660 when the Stuart monarchy was brought back. 

While often celebrated in England, Puritan colonists in North America viewed the day negatively and claimed the maypole was a form of idolatry. It wasn’t until the late 1800s when May Day returned to the minds of American citizens, thanks to both elite reformers and labor leaders. 

In an effort to provide the overwhelming surge of immigrants with entertaining, traditional and quality free time, reformers encouraged the lighthearted antics of the holiday. School children were taught to dance around a maypole with flowers, ribbons and songs or to fill May baskets for others. 

On the other side of the American spectrum were labor leaders who took hold of May 1 during the height of the industrial revolution. In 1886, more than 300,000 workers struck their jobs throughout the nation in demand of shortening the up to 16-hour workdays down to 8 hours. 

A demonstration of these protests grew violent on May 4, leading to the Haymarket Square riot and the death of more than a dozen people. The International Socialist Conference later commemorated the initial strike by labeling May 1 as International Workers’ Day. The holiday is recognized officially in 66 countries, though how it’s celebrated varies widely.

Whether it’s May baskets and dances around the maypole or remembrance of the Haymarket martyrs, May Day has withheld the tests of time and remains as a holiday of celebrating growth, change and hope for a better future.

The Puyallup Post is the award-winning news media of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2018. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @thepuyalluppost

Kathryn Scott

The Origins of May Day

by Kathryn Scott time to read: 3 min