May Day: The History

May Day—a day that goes by many different names—is one of the most historic, worldwide holidays with roots to paganism. Typically celebrated on May 1st in the northern hemisphere, it’s honored in various ways all around the world. From America to Germany and all the countries in-between, May Day ushers in the change of seasons, bringing promises of warmer days in all cultures. With a usual abundance of singing, dancing around a maypole, and delicious foods, the May Day festivities never stray too far from their roots.

The History

May Day dates back to pre-Christian times with Floralia—a five-day festival celebrating Flora, a Roman goddess—during the Roman Republic era, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations held in Germanic countries. More often than not, it’s also associated with the Gaelic Beltaine (or the anglicized Beltane). In many pre-Christian, European pagan cultures, Beltane was a traditional summer holiday. It was believed that it divided the year in half; the other half to be ended with Samhain—a festival honoring death and Beltane’s counterpart—on November 1st. The May Day customs in those days involved the setting of a new fire, an ancient New Year rite performed throughout the world with some kind of fertility festival during this time of the year. When the Romans came to occupy the British Isles, they brought in the rituals of the Floralia festival and, gradually, they were added to those of the Beltane. Many of today’s customs bear a stark similarity to these combined traditions, unknown to most.

However, as Europe became Christianized, the pagan holidays lost their religious values and May Day became a standard, nonspiritual celebration. As time went on, many different cultures and countries adapted May Day to their beliefs. The more secular versions of May Day, found mostly in America and Europe, are best known for their traditions of dancing around the maypole and flower crowns. Ironically enough, though, one of the most significant May Day celebrations is for St. Walburga, a woman credited for bringing Christianity to Germany.

Since the 18th century, holidays with Pagan origins—such as Halloween and other public holidays—have been taken by Roman Catholics; May Day was moved towards a celebration with dedications to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Depicted in many works of art, school skits and so on, Mary’s head is often decorated with flowers in a May crowning. May 1st has also become one of the two feast days in which St Joseph the Worker—a carpenter, husband to Mother Mary and surrogate father of Jesus—is celebrated as the Catholic patron saint of workers. This date was chosen in 1955 by Pope Pius XII, replacing another feast to St. Joseph, as a counterpoint to the communist International Workers’ Day—or Labor Day—celebrations on May 1st.

Though there have always been traditionalists, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that many neopagans began reclaiming the practices and celebrating May Day as a religious pagan festival once again. Still, for most nowadays, though the history has been lost, May 1st is a holiday of flowers, maypoles, greenwood frivolity, and holds the excitement of summer around the corner.

Other Names and Correspondences

As May Day goes by many names in different countries and cultures, you might know of some celebrations or have been celebrating them without knowing:

  • Floralia
  • Fairy Day
  • Vappu (Finnish)
  • Walpurgis Night
  • Sacred Thorn Day
  • Los Mayos (Spain)
  • Lei Day (Hawaiian)
  • Irminden (Bulgarian)
  • Festival of Tana (Strega)
  • Bealtaine/Beltane (Gaelic)
  • Cetsamhain (opposite Samhain)
  • Kevadpüha and Volbriöö (Estonian)
  • Calendimaggio or cantar maggio (Italian)
  • Walpurgisnacht (Germanic-feast of St. Walpurga)

And like most holidays, some people prefer to get “in the spirit” of May 1st in their own way, which is entirely possible to do. Correspondences are items that are associated with holidays either by tradition or by spiritual belief, much like pine to Christmas and pumpkins to Halloween. So if you want to celebrate the day but can’t or don’t want to attend a festival, here’s a list of some traditional correspondences to help you:

  • Incense: frankincense, lilac, rose
  • Colors: green, soft pink, blue, yellow, red, brown
  • Stones/Gems: emerald, malachite, amber, orange carnelian, sapphire, rose quartz
  • Food: dairy, bread, cereals, oatmeal cakes, cherries, strawberries, wine, green salads
  • Herbs and Flowers: almond tree/shrub, cinquefoil, clover, elder, foxglove, frankincense, honeysuckle, rowan, sorrel, lily of the valley, marigold, meadowsweet, mint, mugwort, thyme, woodruff, angelica, bluebells, daisy, hawthorn, ivy, lilac, primrose, rose, basically all flowers

So whether you celebrate May 1st or just enjoy knowing the history behind one of today’s most valued holidays around the world, keep an eye out for some celebrations or festivals near you this year. Perhaps you’ve been celebrating all along and you didn’t even know it. Happy May Day!

Special thanks to losing control. and Audrey T for editing.

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