The History and the Presence of May Day
To celebrate May Day comes from a tradition that stems back to 1561.
In medieval England, people would celebrate the start of spring by going out to the country or woods— they would call this celebration, “going a-Maying”—and gathering greenery and flowers, or “bringing in the May.” This was described in “The Court of Love” (often attributed to Chaucer, but not actually written by him).
The May Day poem back in the mid 1500’s went like this:
And furth goth all the Court, both most and lest,
To feche the floures fressh, and braunche and blome;
And namly, hawthorn brought both page and grome.
With fressh garlandes, partie blewe and whyte,
And thaim rejoysen in their greet delyt.
In today’s English setting:
And forth went all the court, both greatest and least smallest
To fetch the flowers fresh and branch and bloom
And namely, hawthorn brought both page and groom
With fresh garlands partly blue and white
And they rejoiced in their great delight.
May Day- has more holidays than any other day of the year. It’s a celebration of Spring. It’s a day of political protests. It’s a neo-pagan festival, a saint’s feast day, and a day for organized labor. In many countries, it is a national holiday.
Beltane (Neo-Pagan-Irish Holiday)
Beltane was a Celtic (Irish) calendar feast bringing in the start of summer. (It also went by a variety of other spellings and names in assorted dialects of Gaelic.)
Gaelic (Irish language).
Bonfires, often created by rubbing sticks together, were common features of Beltane celebrations. Related rituals included driving cattle between two fires, dancing around the fires, and burning witches in effigy. Another tradition was Beltane cakes, which would be broken into several pieces, one of which was blackened. They would be drawn by celebrants at random; the person getting the unlucky blackened piece would face a mock execution.
In recent years, Beltaine has been adopted or revived by neopagan groups as a major seasonal festival.
Walpurgisnacht (German Holiday)
St. Wallgurga (or Walpurgis), the abbess of the monastery of Heidenheim, helped St Boniface bring Christianity to 8th Century Germany. She died on Feb. 25, 779.
Her remains have been moved on multiple occasions, several days have been designated in her honor, one of which is the first of May.
This date coincided with a pre-existing pagan festival, which, in Germany, included rites to protect one against witchcraft. This led to a hybrid legend developing, in which witches were said to meet with the Devil on the eve of May 1, on the Brocken peak. The night of April 30th became known as “Walpurgisnacht,” and the annual meeting was dramatized by Goethe in Faust.
Some cultures, such as those found in India and Egypt, had spring fertility festivals. The Roman festival celebrating Flora, goddess of fertility, flowers, and spring, was celebrated from April 28 through May 3.
Bringing in the May
Another English tradition is the Maypole.(Maypole-a tall pole, decorated with flowers and ribbons, around which people dance or engage in sports during May Day celebrations).
Some towns had permanent maypoles that would stay up all year; others put up a new one each May. In any event, the pole would be hung with greenery and ribbons, brightly painted, and otherwise decorated, and served as a central point for the festivities.
May Day was also a time for Morris Dancing and other dances, often around the Maypole. In the 19th century, people began to braid the maypole with ribbons by weaving in and out in the course of a dance. Other later traditions include making garlands for children and the crowning of the May Queen.
Morris Dancing is a rustic dance of the north of England that had its origin in country festivals, such as those of May Day and Whitsunday. Reference to it in English literature is made as early as the 15th century. The main dancers were called Robin Hood, Maid Marian, the hobbyhorse, and the bavian, or fool. They were accompanied by a piper or (taborer). An ambulatory dance was often performed from one village to another by the main dancers and six other dancers, three in a row. The Morris dance was a sword dance in many vicinities. The History of Morris Dancing, 1458–1750.
May Day soon became Labor Day in the United States and many other countries.
This origination with the United States became a labor movement in the late 19th Century. On May 1, 1886, unions across the country went on strike, demanding that the standard workday be shortened to eight hours. The organizers of these strikes included socialists, anarchists, and others in organized labor movements. Rioting in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4th including a bomb thrown by an anarchist led to the deaths of a dozen people (including several police officers) and the injury of over 100 more.
The protests were not immediately successful, but they proved effective down the line, as eight-hour work days eventually did become the norm. Labor leaders, socialists, and anarchists around the world took the American strikes and their fallout as a rallying point, choosing May Day as a day for demonstrations, parades, and speeches. It was a major state holiday in the Soviet Union and other communist countries.
Labor Day is still celebrated on May 1 in countries around the world, and it is still often a day for protests and rallies. In recent years, these have often been targeted against globalization.
So what started out as a simple but yet beautiful holiday some 2000 years ago, has turned into a day of protests and became apart of the political arena in recent years.
Although it seems like the United States has undermined this holiday of flowers, spring and beauty, we can still look beyond the political strife and find May Day as a day of new beginnings as we hear the birds sing and watch the environment come alive again after a sleeping wintry slumber.