May Day

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May Day,

first day of May. Its celebration probably originated in the spring fertility festivals of India and Egypt. The festival of the Roman goddess of spring, Flora, was celebrated from Apr. 28 to May 3. In medieval England the chief feature of the celebration of May Day was the Maypole; this was decorated with flowers and streamers, the loose ends of which were held by dancers, who encircled the pole, weaving intricate patterns as they passed each other in the dance. These dances are still performed for exhibition purposes in England and the United States. The Second Socialist International in 1889 designated May Day as the holiday for labor, and since that time it has been the occasion for demonstrations, parades, and speeches among socialists and communists.

May Day

May Day, celebrated on May 1, is an ancient European folk holiday of uncertain origins. Some writers trace it back to ancient Roman festivals. Others believe that it evolved out of ancient Celtic or northern European observances (see also Beltane). The folklore of northern Europe reveals that ethnic groups from Russia to Ireland celebrated the arrival of May by gathering flowers and greenery from meadows and woodlands. They used this foliage to decorate their homes and yards. In some countries boys left branches, decorated trees, or poles outside the homes of girls they knew. Other May Day customs found in many European countries include erecting and decorating maypoles to serve as the center of May Day festivities, dancing, and the crowning of a May king or May queen.


Some writers believe that May Day celebrations started in ancient Rome. The Romans celebrated the festival of Floralia during the last days of April and the first days of May. This holiday celebrated the blossoming of flowers and welcomed the arrival of spring. Romans observed the occasion with bouts of drinking and rowdy, flirtatious games. Celebrations also included the release of hares and goats, both symbols of lust, as well as tossing flowers, beans, and greenery at other people. Prostitutes adopted Floralia as a festival with special significance for their trade. In addition, dramas and games were held at the temple of Flora in Rome. To honor the goddess people wrapped the columns of the temple in flower garlands while women and girls dressed in white sprinkled fresh flower petals all around. One holiday tradition held that the first person to place a wreath of flowers on the statue of Flora would have good luck in the months to come. Children followed a tradition of their own, fashioning little dolls that represented the goddess and decking them with flowers. May first was sacred to the goddess Bona Dea. Little is known about her and her festival. Some say she was the mother or sister of Faunus (Pan), a demi-god associated with the flocks. It may be that she was a kind of mother goddess that presided over the fertility of the earth. Only women were permitted to attend her sacred rites.

Bringing in the May

In England one of the older customs connected with May Day was known as "going a-Maying" or "bringing in the May." Boys and girls of courtship and marriage age would rise early on May Day morning and go into the woods in search of flowers and greenery, often while it was still dark. They brought armloads of foliage and blossoms back into town, strewing them about as holiday decorations. The earliest document to refer to this custom dates back to 1240. About one hundred years later the famous English writer Geoffrey Chaucer (13421400) noted that on May Day "forth goeth all the court, both most and least, to fetch flowers fresh," documenting the fact that in his day the nobility as well as the commoners went a-Maying. The English poet Edmund Spenser offers a somewhat longer description of the custom in his 1579 work The Shepherd's Calendar:

Siker this morrow, no longer ago, I saw a shole of shepherds outgo With a singing, and shouting, and jolly cheer; Before them yode a lusty Tabrere, That to the many a horn-pipe play'd Whereto they dancen each one with his maid. To see these folks make such jouissance, Made my heart after the pipe to dance. Then to the greenwood they speeden them all, To fetchen home May with their musical: And home they bring him in a royal throne Crowned as king; and his queen attone Was Lady Flora, on whom did attend A fair flock of fairies, and a fresh bend Of lovely nymphs - O that I were there To helpen the ladies their May-bush to bear! (Chambers, 1: 571)

During the sixteenth century a religious reform movement known as the Protestant Reformation gave birth to a sect of conservative Protestants known as Puritans. English Puritans complained about these May Day customs, grumbling that many a sexual encounter took place during these May morning or May eve outings to the woods. Their campaign against the custom may have succeeded in discouraging some from participating in May Day activities in the mid-seventeenth century, years during which they achieved a good deal of political power. Nevertheless, the old enthusiasm for bringing in the May returned later in the century as their influence waned. The custom finally began to die out in the nineteenth century, probably as a result of the effects of urbanization and industrialization on the countryside and rural populations.

Offerings, Garlands, and Baskets

These trips to the woods furnished participants with the materials needed for another English May Day custom, the May offering. In some places, upon returning from the woods those who had gone aMaying left greenery and branches outside the doors of village residents. These offerings had symbolic meanings known to local people. In the Cambridgeshire Fens boys left sloe branches at the doors of popular girls, blackthorn at the homes of flirtatious girls, elder for promiscuous girls, and nettles outside the homes of those considered scolds. In Northhamptonshire an offering of hawthorn branches signaled affection or approval, while sloe, crab-apple, nettles or thistles conveyed dislike or disapproval. In some areas May-ers brought offerings of flowers and greenery from door to door, singing traditional May carols and hoping in exchange for a tip of food, drink, or money. Young men might combine the delivery of May offerings with small destructive acts aimed at those people against whom they bore a grudge. These acts of revenge included trampling gardens, pulling up fence stakes, and overturning carts. This tradition of May Day mischief continues today in the Yorkshire region. In past times many young women wove blossoms and leaves into May garlands which they sold from door to door. In England the weaving and distribution of garlands on May Day can be traced back to the fifteenth century. The custom died out in the 1950s, when widespread affluence eliminated the financial motivation for the practice.

Boys in many parts of Europe gathered greenery on May eve to leave at the homes of local girls. In Switzerland boys left small pine trees festooned with ribbons and flowers under their girlfriends' windows. They called this offering a maitannli, or May pine tree. German lads left similar trees, called Maien, outside the homes of girls they loved. In Switzerland unpopular or conceited girls might find an ugly straw dummy outside their windows instead of a pretty May tree. Czech boys practiced a similar custom with local girls, leaving their sweethearts either a decorated pole or a small pine tree adorned with colored eggshells and ribbons (see also Egg Lore). Macedonian lads wove wreaths of flowers and fragrant leaves and left them at the doors of their girlfriends'houses. Spanish boys brought tree branches adorned with flowers to their sweethearts'windows.

In Ireland people decorated bushes with ribbons, eggshells, and flowers in honor of May Day. In France small decorated trees or poles, called "Mays," appeared everywhere on May Day.

In the United States girls once gathered flowers and presented them to one another in May baskets. According to folk tradition these baskets, made from paper or cardboard, must be hung on the front door of the girl's home without the occupants seeing who delivered it. This custom, especially popular in the eastern United States, has now fallen out of fashion. Other largely defunct American May Day customs include dances held on school lawns and, in some colleges, the election of May queens.

In Hawaii May 1 is known as Lei Day. People observe it by wearing flower garlands called leis, a Hawaiian symbol of goodwill and friendship.

The Maypole

In past centuries the maypole, a tall pole set upright in the ground at some central location, staked out the ground where May Day dancing, games, and revelry would take place. These activities provided ample opportunity for young men and women to meet and flirt with one another.

Before these May Day frolics could take place, however, a tree had to be selected, cut down, stripped of its branches and leaves, dragged into town, and heaved upright. This required teamwork because people wanted tall maypoles, which naturally had to be made from tall, heavy trees. In England historical records dating back several centuries reveal that once the pole was brought into town people set about festooning it with flower garlands, greenery, flags, and streamers. Many German villagers preferred to make their maypoles out of spruce trees skinned of all but their topmost branches. They then decorated the poles with ribbons and a May wreath, frequently entwined with sausages, sweets, and gifts, thereby enticing adventurous youths into attempting to climb the pole. Each town or village took pride in its maypole. Sometimes local rivalries spurred young men from one locale to steal another town's maypole.

Although it is often assumed to be an ancient British custom, the earliest English documents referring to circular dances in which participants weave a garland of ribbons round a maypole date back only as far as the nineteenth century. Similar circular dances round a beribboned maypole can be found in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and parts of Spain, as well as in Venezuela and Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. These dances can also be found at May fairs in the United States.

In England historical documents referring to maypoles date back to the second half of the fourteenth century, though they may have been in use earlier than that time. The Puritans, who were suspicious of holiday merry-making generally, also disliked maypoles, viewing them as lures in the direction of idol worship. In 1644 Puritans in England outlawed maypoles in their country. The poles were reinstated, however, when the Puritans lost power later in the century. From then on, maypoles were a common sight across England until the late eighteenth century, when interest in them began to die out. When the wooden poles decayed and fell down they were not replaced.

The English Puritans who immigrated to America to found New England's Plymouth colony brought their disapproval of May Day with them. In the year 1627, an Anglican who dwelt among them, one Thomas Morton, raised an eighty-foot maypole at his plantation in honor of the holiday. Decorated with flowers, antlers, and ribbons, the maypole scandalized his Puritan neighbors. They whispered that Morton had even danced around the pole in the company of Indian women. Puritan leader John Endecott would have none of it. He publicly renamed Merry Mount, Morton's plantation, "Mount Dragon," in reference to a Philistine idol mentioned in the Bible. The too-merry Morton was then accused of trading arms with the natives and shipped back to England. In 1628 William Bradford, the Puritan governor of the recently founded English colony in Massachusetts Bay, complained about the jollity that took place round the maypole in his community. Puritan officials succeeded in having the pole torn down.

Many theories as to the significance of the maypole have been advanced by folklorists and other commentators. For example, some have argued that the maypole and the ceremonies surrounding it represent a vestige of ancient tree worship. Others contend that the pole symbolizes the male sexual organ and so pays tribute to sexuality and fertility. Little evidence exists to back up any of these claims. It seems safe to say, however, that the maypole, like many other May Day customs, helped people to express their happiness at seeing nature in full bloom.

May Kings and Queens

In England local people often chose a May king to preside over the games and revels taking place during this festive month. In other places a May queen presided over these activities, although this was rarer. Often chosen for her looks, the May queen might be asked to impersonate a May spirit or goddess in her manner and attire as she walked in a May Day procession. In the nineteenth century French girls sometimes selected one of their playmates to deck with flower garlands and present as a May queen. English girls of the same era might present a doll as the May queen. In some parts of England both a May king and May queen shared the duties associated with this role. May kings and queens were also known in other European countries.

Fairies, Witches, and Bonfires

Irish folklore whispered that fairies fought each other over the ripening crops on May eve. Spirits of the dead also wandered abroad on this night, according to Irish folklore. To ward off harm from these supernatural creatures Irish people sometimes left them offerings of food. In many other European countries witches were thought to walk about on this night. In countries where these notions were prevalent people often celebrated May eve with bonfires (for more on these beliefs and practices, see Beltane; Walpurgis Night).

May Dew and May Water

In past times one commonly held European and North American folk belief advised young women that washing their faces in May Day dew would preserve their complexion, impart beauty, and confer health and luck. In some places getting one's head wet with May eve dew was believed to prevent headaches during the year to come. In certain parts of Germany people suspected May water to possess special, magical properties. In Brittany and on the Somme (France) people once made pilgrimages to wells and fountains in the month of May. Old folk beliefs once popular in the region surrounding Paris, France, advised that May milk drunk at dawn surpassed all other kinds of milk.

Labor Day

Over 160 nations observe May Day as a holiday honoring workers. As such, it constitutes the second most celebrated holiday in the world. Although the United States does not observe May 1 as Labor Day, historians trace the history of a holiday honoring workers back to late nineteenth-century America. During this era American labor organizers fought to replace the ten-hour or longer work day with a standard eight-hour day. An important organization representing workers, the National Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Assemblies, called for a general strike on May 1,1886, with the goal of persuading employers to adopt the eight-hour work day. On May 1 striking workers held peaceful protests. These demonstrations continued in Chicago, however, amidst growing tensions fueled by a split in the labor movement between trade unionists and socialists. On May 4 strikers gathered outside the McCormick reaper factory on Haymarket Square to protest the police violence which had caused the deaths of several workers on the previous day. When the police arrived someone threw a bomb. The explosion resulted in the deaths of seven officers and the injuries of many other policemen and civilians. Seven anarchists (radical leftists) from Chicago's labor movement were arrested and convicted of the crime, in spite of the fact that no evidence was produced to connect them with the bomb blast. This miscarriage of justice as well as the eventually successful campaign for the eight-hour day stamped May first with a permanent connection to workers'issues in the minds of many people.

At its 1889 convention in Paris, France, the International Socialist Congress declared May 1 to be International Labor Day. As the labor movement gained respect and strength throughout the world, labor advocates in many different countries instituted May Day as a legal holiday honoring workers. Many Communist countries celebrated May Day as a major patriotic holiday with military and other parades.

St. Tammany's Day

In Maryland May 1 was once known as St. Tammany's Day. Tammany, Taminend or Tamina was a Delaware Indian chief who lived during the colonial era. He befriended William Penn (1644-1718) and signed a treaty with him. In the years preceding the American Revolution certain colonists, disgusted with the British and their patriotic societies, formed their own political club. The British named their political societies after Christian saints, such as St. George and St. Andrew. To give their club a distinctly American flavor, the colonists decided to let Tammany serve as their patron saint. The Tammany Society went on to wield a good deal of power in American politics, especially in New York City.


A myriad of superstitions have attached themselves to this day. In the British Isles it was once thought unlucky to lend fire on this day. Those who came asking for it were thought to be witches (for more on related fire practices, see Beltane).

In some regions of the United States folklore taught that May Day dew could remove freckles. Southern folklore recommended curing a sore throat by opening one's mouth in the direction of the May Day sunrise and letting the first beam of light shine into one's throat. Southern lore also offered many May Day love charms for girls who were curious about the identity of their future mates. A young lady who wore white dogwood blossoms pinned to her blouse on May Day could be sure that the first man she met wearing a white hat would be her future husband. Another bit of lore advised inquisitive girls to leave their handkerchiefs out on the grass on May eve. The next morning they were sure to find that a snail had crawled across them, leaving behind a trail resembling the initials of their future husbands. Another snippet of southern lore recommended standing with one's back towards a spring on May Day morning and looking at it over one's shoulder with the aid of a mirror. These actions should cause the image of one's future husband to rise out of the water.

Further Reading

Blackburn, Bonnie, and Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1999. Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. Volume 1. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1990. Christianson, Stephen G., ed. The American Book of Days. Fourth edition. New York: H. W. Wilson, 2000. Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin, eds. The Folklore of American Holidays. Third edition. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1999. Cooper, J. C. The Dictionary of Festivals. London, England: Thorsons, 1990. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1997. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. James, E. O. Seasonal Feasts and Festivals. 1961. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1993. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Myth- ology and Legend. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald Wolff, 1982. Scullard, H. H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.

May Day

Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: May 1
Where Celebrated: England, Europe, United States, former Soviet Union
Symbols and Customs: Flowers, Jack in the Green, May Baskets, May Dolls, Maypole, Queen of the May
Related Holidays: Beltane, Floralia, Vernal Equinox


May Day is a festival of purely pagan origin. The Celts observed BELTANE on May 1 by lighting bonfires to honor the sun god and welcome the return of spring. The Romans observed their festival of flowers, the FLORALIA, for six days at the end of April and beginning of May, and many of the customs associated with May Day-such as gathering FLOWERS and weaving them into garlands or wreaths- can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome.

May Day marks the changing of the seasons, which people in all parts of the world have honored since ancient times. Many cultures divided the year into two seasons, summer and winter, and marked these points of the year at or near the summer and winter solstices, during which light and warmth began to increase and decrease, respectively. In pre-industrial times, humans survived through hunting, gathering, and agricultural practices, which depend on the natural cycle of seasons, according to the climate in the region of the world in which they lived. Thus, they created rituals to help ensure enough rain and sun in the spring and summer so crops would grow to fruition at harvest time, which was, in turn, duly celebrated. Vestiges of many of these ancient practices are thought to have survived in festivals still celebrated around seasonal themes.

European communities celebrated the arrival of spring by decorating their homes with early-blooming flowers, selecting a QUEEN OF THE MAY , and dancing around the MAYPOLE . Women washed their faces in the early morning dew on May 1, believing that it would improve their complexions and bring them eternal youthfulness. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and even into the nineteenth century, May Day was widely observed throughout Europe and America-although the Puritans persecuted those who participated in the "heathen" customs associated with May Day and urged their children to spend the day reading the Bible. Although May Day is primarily a festival to welcome spring, it also has political significance in some countries. At an international meeting of Socialists in 1889, it was decided that May Day should be renamed Labor Day and turned into a holiday honoring the working man. Countries with Socialist or Communist forms of government still celebrate May 1 with speeches and displays of military strength. The May Day Parade in Moscow's Red Square is one of the better known examples, although it has been toned down somewhat since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The United States observes its Labor Day in early September. Ironically, May 1 marks the anniversary of the 1886 Chicago labor rally that resulted in the infamous Haymarket Riot and the subsequent decline of the labor anarchist movement.

May Day is not a national holiday in the United States, but people in Hawaii observe it as Lei Day by exchanging the traditional Hawaiian flower necklaces as symbols of friendship and good luck.



As the quintessential symbol of spring, flowers have played a central role in May Day celebrations since the time of the Roman FLORALIA. Garlands of flowers were such an important part of the May Day ceremonies in England that it was often called Garland Day. The custom of "bringing in the May"-going out to the field or woods early in the morning on May 1 and returning with baskets full of flowers-was widespread throughout Europe and America. Sometimes the flowers would be strung together in long chains. Another popular custom was tying a single blossom to the end of a long wand. Sometimes the flowers were used to make a crown for the May Queen (see QUEEN OF THE MAY ) or to fill MAY BASKETS . In Greece, wild flowers are still gathered and woven into May Day wreaths. The wreaths are then hung up to dry until St. John's Eve (June 23), when they are burned in the midsummer bonfires (see MIDSUMMER DAY).

Up until the mid-nineteenth century in England, the "May Birchers" would go from house to house on May Day Eve and decorate the doors with boughs of trees or flowers that expressed their opinion of the person who lived there. In some areas, the plants were chosen because they rhymed with the word describing the person. For example, the "fair" of face might find a pear bough placed over her door, while someone who was "glum" might find a branch of plum. Not surprisingly, this custom caused so much ill feeling that it was eventually discontinued.

Jack in the Green

Until recently, a leaf-covered figure known as Jack in the Green was an important part of May Day celebrations in England. He was usually a young chimney sweep concealed inside a six-to-ten-foot-high wicker framework made of hoops and completely covered in holly and ivy. This leafy green figure danced at the head of a procession of chimney sweeps that meandered through the village, singing songs and collecting pennies.

Along with the QUEEN OF THE MAY , Jack in the Green is believed to be a relic of ancient European tree worship. The Gypsies of Romania and Transylvania still observe their Green George Festival on April 23-Green George being a tree-spirit represented by a boy dressed in branches, leaves, and flowers. These humans disguised as trees are another example of May Day's pagan origins.

May Baskets

The custom of hanging up small baskets filled with flowers became popular in the United States during the nineteenth century and is still enjoyed in some areas by children today. The baskets are often made from woven strips of colored paper decorated with lace-paper doilies and ribbons. They're filled with flowers, candy, perhaps a short poem, and the name of the person for whom they are intended. The usual practice is to hang the basket on the person's front door, ring the bell, and then run away before the door is opened-much like trick-or-treating at HALLOWEEN . In Iowa, school-age children leave May baskets at the doors of those they have crushes on, flowers being symbolic of love, fertility, and the arrival of spring.

May Dolls

The Romans welcomed the month of May by dedicating it to Flora, the goddess of flowers. They spent the first day of the month gathering flowers as offerings to the goddess. Sometimes Roman children made small images of Flora and decorated them with flowers. After Christianity was introduced and the Church tried to replace some of the pagan customs associated with May Day, these May dolls were turned into likenesses of the Virgin Mary. (See also QUEEN OF THE MAY )


The Maypole is probably the best known of the symbols associated with May Day. The earliest Maypoles were trees (usually fir or birch) brought in solemn procession to the village square. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many towns in England and Europe erected permanent poles that were left standing throughout the year and could be decorated for May Day. The shaft was sometimes painted with stripes, and a flower doll (see MAY DOLLS ) was frequently fastened to the top. A tuft of greenery was always left on the end of the pole as a reminder that it was a symbol of the newly awakened spirit of fertility and vegetation. Colorful ribbons or streamers were hung from the pole, and people would dance around it holding the ends of the streamers in such a way that they were woven into a pattern as the dancers progressed. Today, the Maypole dance is often performed by traditional English Morris dancers-men wearing hats decorated with ribbons and flowers, streamers on their wrists and elbows, bells strapped to their shins, and holding white handkerchiefs and clacking wooden sticks. The bells and sticks were originally used to frighten off evil spirits, and the dancers' high leaps were believed to encourage the crops to grow tall.

The Puritans hated the idea of dancing around the Maypole because they saw the pole as a phallic symbol and the dance as a pagan fertility ritual that had no place in a civilized Christian society. Although they tried to stamp out the custom, they were never altogether successful in repressing this and other May Day ceremonies that obviously had their roots in very primitive human instincts.

Queen of the May

The custom of crowning a Queen of the May commemorates Maia, the ancient Roman mother goddess associated with growth and the spring season, as well as Flora, the goddess of flowers. The Queen is usually chosen from the girls of the town or village, and at one time she was accompanied by a May King, their court, and villagers dressed up as shepherds, jesters, chimney sweeps, Morris dancers, and JACK IN THE GREEN , a mythical figure who symbolized the spirit of seasonal growth. Nowadays the May King has largely disappeared, but schoolchildren in London still choose their own May Queen.

In the United States, attempts to Christianize May Day focused on Mary, the mother of Jesus. In many places where May Day is celebrated with the crowning of a May Queen, there is often a procession to a local church, where the Queen places a crown of flowers on the statue of Mary.


Dobler, Lavinia G. Customs and Holidays Around the World. New York: Fleet Pub. Corp., 1962. Frazer, Sir James G. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1931. Gaer, Joseph. Holidays Around the World. Boston: Little, Brown, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Hole, Christina. English Custom & Usage. 1941. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Long, George. The Folklore Calendar. 1930. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs: The Stories Behind 296 Popular American Rituals. New York: Harmony, 1987.

May Day

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Beltane is one of the major sabbats in the Witches' calendar and is celebrated on the eve of May Day. May Day celebrations are still practiced in part throughout much of Europe and the rest of the world and are the continuing celebrations of this pagan religious festival. The name of the sabbat is spelled variously Beltane, Beltene, Beltine, Beal-Tene, Bealltain. It is also known as Walpurgisnacht, Rood Day, and Rudemas.

In early times, the year was roughly divided into two halves: the summer months, when it was possible to grow crops, and the winter months, when it was necessary to hunt for food. The fertility goddess was predominant in the former and the horned god in the latter. The transition between these seasons occurred at Beltane (May Eve) and Samhain (November Eve), which remain the two most important of the Wiccan festivals.

Jumping over the balefire was one of the May Day traditions. Individuals would leap across the flames to ensure fertility and good health, as a spiritual cleansing, and for protection in the coming year. Couples would take hands and leap together,

believing that in so doing their marriages would be sealed in health and happiness. Cattle and sheep would be driven between two fires, or through the ashes of one fire.

The central theme of Beltane was sexuality and fertility. It was, in the early days of Witchcraft, very much a time for ritual coupling. On the festival eve, men and women would go out to search for flowers and green boughs, often staying out overnight. Philip Stubbes, the Elizabethan Puritan, commented (Anatomie of Abuses, 1583): "I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravitie, credite and reputation that of fourtie, three score or a hundred maides goying to the woode ouer night, there have scarcely the third parte of them returned home againe undefiled." The people's view is aptly summed up in Rudyard Kipling's words, adopted by modern Wiccans as their "May Eve Chant," and sometimes sung while dancing around the Maypole: Oh, do not tell the priests of our rites For they would call it sin; But we will be in the woods all night A-conjurin' Summer in!

The major custom for May Day was "Bringing in the May"—carrying home, at sunrise, the boughs and flowering branches that had been gathered in the woods overnight. Any tree that was in bloom at that time was referred to as "May." The hawthorn was the most popular, although the sycamore was favored in Cornwall and the rowan in much of Scotland and Wales. The flowering branches were used to decorate the houses and left on the doorsteps of people who were admired. Flowers, such as the marsh marigold, were also brought home by the "Mayers," and these were woven into garlands and elaborate decorations. Herdsmen in Sweden still follow an old practice of cutting the first bough of a mountain ash struck by the sun on May Day morning. With this bough they then strike the horns and flanks of their cattle, chanting, "As the sap comes to the trees, may milk come to these udders." May Day was celebrated throughout the British Isles, across much of Europe, and even in Russia.

The high point of May Day, and a pagan practice still very much alive even in Christian communities, was the dance around a Maypole. The phallic symbolism of the Maypole is generally accepted. The distribution of gifts from it, and ribbons streaming from its tip, emphasizes its fruit-bearing qualities. Goldberg states: "Like the rod or the pole, the tree graphically represents the lingam. But it also suggests the generative organ functionally; standing erect, rooted in the ground and stretching skyward. . . (it) emphasizes power and virility. . . it was generative in no unmistakable manner. The tree was, then, a living image of the lingam." A huge Maypole was regularly set up in the City of London. It stood for generations until finally being taken down in 1517, by order of the Church. Even then it was stored in a row of cottages only to be preached against and, 32 years later, destroyed. There was a revival of May Day celebrations, and with it the Maypole, as an expression of loyalty to the restored Charles II, after the Commonwealth period, and a further revival in Victorian England.

Stubbs commented on the Maypole as the "chiefest jewel," and described how the people "have twentie or fortie yoke of Oxen, every Oxe having a sweet nose-gay of floures placed on the tip of his hornes, and these Oxen drawe home this May-pole (this stinking Idol rather) which is covered all over with floures and herbs bound about with strings. . . And thus being reared up, with handkerchiefs and flags hovering about the top, they straw the ground round about. . . and then fall they to dance about it as the heathen people did at the dedication of Idols."

On the first day of May the Romans paid homage to their Lares, or household gods. They also paid homage to Maia, daughter of Atlas and one of the Pleiades. By Zeus, Maia became mother of Hermes. She gave her name to the month of May.

The Druids Calendar urges one to "dance round the Maypole, and otherwise abandon yourself to the season. A woodland frolic culminating in indiscretion is the order of the day." Washing in the early morning dew was a popular May Day practice, it being believed that to do so made the recipient more beautiful. Samuel Pepys, in his famous diary, refers to the practice. Many Witches also gather the dew to use in potions and spells.

The hawthorn was associated with Beltane. Graves comments that "its later orgiastic use. . . corresponds with the cult of the Goddess Flora, and. . . accounts for the English medieval habit of riding out on May morning to pluck hawthorn boughs and dance round the maypole. Hawthorn blossom has, for many men, a strong scent of female sexuality."

May Day


an international holiday of the working people; a day of solidarity among workers throughout the world, and a day for the combat review of the forces of the working people of all countries. The decision to make May 1 a day of annual demonstrations was made in July 1889 by the Paris Congress of the Second International, to commemorate an action by the workers of Chicago, who organized a strike for May 1, 1886, demanding an eight-hour workday, and held a demonstration that ended in a bloody confrontation with the police. May 1 was celebrated for the first time as an international holiday in 1890 in Austria-Hungary, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Italy, the USA, Norway, France, Sweden, and several other countries. (In Great Britain, the first May Day celebration was held on May 4, 1890.) The main demand of the first May Day demonstrations was the eight-hour workday. The form of May Day demonstrations and the content of May Day slogans were often the subject of sharp disagreements between representatives of the revolutionary and reformist tendencies in the working-class movement.

The enormous revolutionizing effect of the Great October Socialist Revolution on the international working-class movement was reflected in the character of May Day celebrations, which became more massive and, in many countries, took on a clearly revolutionary, anticapitalist tendency. After World War II (1939–45) the formation of the world socialist system, the breakup of the colonial system of imperialism, and the strengthening of the forces of socialism and democracy throughout the world determined the particular features of May Day celebrations in different countries and regions.

The socialist countries celebrate May Day by mobilizing the working people in the struggle to build socialism and communism. In the developing countries that have been freed from colonial rule, as well as in countries struggling for political independence, May Day is celebrated as a day of struggle against imperialism and internal reaction, for the elimination of colonialism and neocolonialism, and for the establishment in the former colonies of an independent economy and a progressive approach to socioeconomic development. On May Day the working people in the developed capitalist countries advance demands for improved working and living conditions and hold demonstrations in favor of democratic transformations and socialism. In all countries the international brotherhood of peoples and the struggle for peace are celebrated on May Day.

In prerevolutionary Russia and the USSR. In the Russian Empire, May Day was first celebrated in 1890 with a strike by 10,000 workers in Warsaw. In 1891 an illegal May Day meeting of workers was organized in St. Petersburg by M. I. Brusnev’s Social Democratic group. From 1892 to 1894, May Day was marked by meetings and gatherings of workers in St. Petersburg, Tula, Warsaw, Lódz, Vilnius, Kazan, Kiev, and Nizhny Novgorod. Beginning in the mid-1890’s the number of May Day strikes organized by the workers increased steadily. From 1900, May Day was celebrated not only by strikes but also by demonstrations in Kiev, Warsaw, Vilnius, Helsinki, and Kharkov. In 1901, Iskra initiated the publication of the May Day general party proclamation of the RSDLP. May Day demonstrations held in 1901 in St. Petersburg, Tbilisi, Gomel’, Kharkov, and other cities were the first to be accompanied by the slogans “Down with the autocracy!” and “Hail to the republic!” and the first to bring confrontations with troops.

The workers’ May Day demonstrations took on an all-Russian character. In 1905, May Day was celebrated in 177 cities and industrial centers. Peasants, soldiers, and sailors began to join the workers in May Day events. During the years of reaction, May 1 was celebrated primarily with meetings and gatherings. In 1912, after the Lena massacre, 400,000 workers went on strike during the May days. Their main slogans called for the eight-hour workday, confiscation of the landlords’ estates, and the overthrow of the autocracy. In 1913, 420,000 workers joined in May Day strikes; in 1914, 500,000 workers participated. After the victory of the February Revolution of 1917, May Day was freely celebrated for the first time. Millions of working people took to the streets under the Bolshevik slogans “All power to the Soviets!” and “Down with the imperialist war!”

The character and content of May Day celebrations changed with the victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution. On May Day the working people of the Soviet Union show their solidarity with the revolutionary struggles of the working people in capitalist countries and with national liberation movements. They express their determination to use all their power for the struggle for peace and the building of communist society. In the USSR, May 1 was proclaimed a holiday in the 1918 Labor Code of the RSFSR. May 2 was declared a holiday in a decree issued on Apr. 23, 1928, by the Central Executive Committee of the Council of People’s Commissars.


Lenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed. (See Index, part 1, p. 459.)
Pervoe Maia v tsarskoi Rossii 1890–1916 gg.: Sb. dok-tov.[Moscow] 1939.
Pochebut, G. A. Penomai. Leningrad, 1961.

May Day

May 1
Many of the customs associated with the first day of May may come from the old Roman Floralia, or festival of flowers. These include the gathering of branches and flowers on May Day Eve or early May Day morning, the choosing and crowning of a May Queen, and dancing around a bush, tree, or decorated pole, the maypole. The sports and festivities that are held on this day symbolize the rebirth of nature as well as human fertility. In fact, the ritual drinking and dancing around the maypole in colonial America so horrified the Pilgrim Fathers that they outlawed the practice and punished the offenders. This is probably why May Day has remained a relatively quiet affair in this country.
In Communist countries, May Day has been transformed into a holiday for workers, marked by parades that are an occasion for displaying military strength. The May Day Parade in Red Square, Moscow, has long been a spectacular example, though less so in recent years with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the resulting relaxation of Cold War tensions. Perhaps in reaction to such displays, Americans instituted Loyalty Day and Law Day on this same date. In Great Britain, May 1 is Labor Day. More than 50 other countries also celebrate Labor Day in honor of workers on May 1.
See also Vappu
AmerBkDays-2000, p. 334
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 570
BkFest-1937, pp. 17, 58, 88, 113, 122, 186, 261, 278, 310
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 115
DictFolkMyth-1984, pp. 129, 202, 203, 534, 695, 750, 866, 946, 1064
EncyEaster-2002, p. 397
FestSaintDays-1915, pp. 102, 105, 109
FestWestEur-1958, p. 37
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 205
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 315
OxYear-1999, p. 184

Celebrated in: Albania, Bangladesh, Czech Republic, Eritrea, Finland, France, Gambia, Germany, Ghana, Gibraltar, Guyana, Iraq, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Myanmar, Nepal, Serbia, Slovakia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Syria

May Day (Czech Republic) (Prvého Máje)
May 1
The traditional maypole associated with May Day in western Europe, the United States, and elsewhere plays a central role in the celebration of May 1 in the former Czechoslovakia (now the countries of the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic). On May Day Eve, boys traditionally plant maypoles underneath their girlfriends' windows, so that the girls will wake up and see them first thing in the morning. In some villages, it is customary to raise a maypole beneath the window of the most popular girl in town. The maypole is said to represent the girl's life; the taller it is, the longer she will live. Sometimes it is a small tree, decorated with ribbons and colored eggshells.
Bands give concerts in village squares on May Day, and musicians go from house to house, singing. As a traditional spring festival, May Day has been a time for Czechs and Slovaks to sing, dance, and take pleasure in the beauty of the season.
See also May Day Eve in the Czech Republic
BkFest-1937, p. 88

Celebrated in: Czech Republic

May Day (France)
May 1
In France the celebration of May Day is inextricably linked to flowers. It is considered good luck to wear lilies-of-the-valley on this day, and it is believed that any wishes made while wearing the flowers are bound to come true. Sometimes sprays of pressed lilies are sent to distant friends and loved ones. In southern France the flower vendors sell lilies-of-the-valley on every street corner.
The First of May has political overtones in France as well, and it is a public holiday officially observed as Labor Day. Political demonstrations, speeches, and parades are common on this day—similar to May Day celebrations in England, Russia, and other countries.
French Government Tourist Office
444 Madison Ave., Fl. 20
New York, NY 10022
800-391-4909 or 212-838-7800; fax: 212-838-7855
BkDays-1864, vol. I, p. 579
BkFest-1937, p. 122
BkFestHolWrld-1970, p. 85
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 696
FestWestEur-1958, p. 37
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 315

Celebrated in: France

May Day (Scandinavia)
May 1
In Scandinavia, the celebration of May Day actually begins on April 30, Walpurgis Night. But the big event of the day is a mock battle between summer and winter, usually represented by two husky young men. Summer always wins, and winter is buried in effigy.
In the Swedish university town of Uppsala, students wearing white caps gather together to hear songs and speeches. Huge bonfires, also associated with Walpurgis Night, are popular in many areas of Sweden. Political speeches, parades of labor organizations, and public demonstrations take place on May 1 as well.
There is a superstition in Norway, dating back to pre-Christian times, about hearing the cuckoo's first call in spring: If the call comes from the south, the year will be good; if it is heard from the north, one will become ill or die in the coming year; if it comes from the west, one will be successful; and if it comes from the east, one will be lucky in love. For this reason, traditional Norwegian calendars show a bird perched in a tree on the mark for May 1.
BkFest-1937, p. 310
DaysCustFaith-1957, p. 116
FolkWrldHol-1999, pp. 317, 318

May Day (Spain)
May 1
Many Spanish May Day customs are believed to have pagan origins ( see Floralia). At the end of April, young people (in some villages, only bachelors) choose a tall pine tree to use as a maypole and set it up in the plaza. They decorate it with ribbons, beads, and eggshells, and as they dance around it they sing May songs. The ceremonies around the tree continue for several days, and on the last day of the month the tree is sold to raise money for refreshments or a dinner.
La Maya refers to both the girls who take part in the May Day celebrations and to the May Queen. It is traditional for a group of boys and girls to choose a queen, sit her on a couch or chair, and dance around her on May Day. They sing love songs, or coplas, in which they ask for food and money from everyone who passes by, and then use the contributions for a feast or banquet.
In some areas, the May Queen has been replaced by a Cruz de Mayo, or May cross. An altar is set up with candles, a white cloth, and a cross decorated with flowers and ribbons. There is dancing around the altar and requests for food and money. Sometimes young girls carry the wooden May crosses through the streets, asking for contributions. It is possible that this custom resulted from the confusion of May Day with the Feast of the Holy Cross, formerly observed by the Roman Catholic Church on May 3 ( see Exaltation of the Cross), and still observed by Catholics in Latin America ( see Día de la Santa Cruz)
Tourist Office of Spain
666 Fifth Ave., Fl. 35
New York, NY 10103
212-265-8822; fax: 212-265-8864
DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 1064
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 318

Celebrated in: Spain

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