Artist – John Collier (1850-1934) (English)
For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,
Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,
Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might,
Excerpt from the poem “Guinevere” by ALFRED, LORD TENNYSON
The Ancient Origins of Mayday
Mayday originated as a pagan festive holy day celebrating the first spring planting.
The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane. Many pagan celebrations were abandoned or Christianized during the process of conversion in Europe. A more secular version of May Day continues to be observed in Europe and America. In this form, May Day may be best known for its tradition of dancing the maypole dance and crowning of the Queen of the May. Various Neopagan groups celebrate reconstructed (to varying degrees) versions of these customs on May 1.
The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of Spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is observed as Mary’s month, and in these circles May Day is usually a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this connection, in works of art, school skits, and so forth, Mary’s head will often be adorned with flowers in a May crowning.
Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of “May baskets”, small baskets of sweets and/or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbours’ doorsteps.
The ancient Celts and Saxons celebrated May 1st as Beltane, which means the day of fire. Bel was the Celtic god of the sun. The Saxons began their Mayday celebrations on the eve of May, April 30. It was an evening of games and feasting celebrating the end of winter and the return of the sun and fertility of the soil. Torch bearing peasants and villagers would wind their way up paths to the top of hills or mountain crags and then ignite wooden wheels, which they would roll down into the fields below.
The May eve celebrations were eventually outlawed by the Catholic Church, but were still celebrated by peasants until the late 1700’s. While good church going folk would shy away from joining in the celebrations, those less afraid of papal authority would don animal masks and various costumes. The revellers, lead by the Goddess of the Hunt, Diana (sometimes played by a pagan-priest in women’s clothing), and the Horned God, Herne, would travel up the hill shouting, chanting, singing, and blowing hunting horns. This night became known in Europe as Walpurgisnacht, or night of the witches.
The Celtic tradition of Mayday in the British Isles continued to be celebrated throughout the middle ages by rural and village folk. Here the traditions were similar with a goddess and god of the hunt. As European peasants moved away from hunting gathering societies their gods and goddesses changed to reflect a more agrarian society. Thus Diana and Herne came to be seen by medieval villagers as fertility deities of the crops and fields. Diana became the Queen of the May and Herne became Robin Goodfellow (a predecessor of Robin Hood) or the Green Man. The Queen of the May reflected the life of the fields and Robin reflected the hunting traditions of the woods. The rites of mayday were part and parcel of pagan celebrations of the seasons. The Christian church later absorbed many of these pagan rites in order to win over converts from the ‘Old Religion’.
The two most popular feast days for medieval craft guilds were the Feast of St. John – the Summer Solstice – and Mayday. Mayday was a raucous and fun time, electing a queen of the May from the eligible young women of the village, to rule the crops until harvest. Besides the selection of the May Queen was the raising of the phallic Maypole, around which the young single men and women of the village would dance holding on to the ribbons until they became entwined, with their (hoped for) new love. There was also Robin Goodfellow – the Green Man – who was the Lord of Misrule for this day. Mayday was a celebration of the common people, and Robin would be the King, Priest or Fool for a day. Priests and Lords were the butt of many jokes; mummers would make jokes and poke fun at the local authorities.
The church and state did not take kindly to these celebrations, especially during times of popular rebellion. Mayday and the Maypole were outlawed in the 1600’s. Yet the tradition still carried on in many rural areas and the trade societies still celebrated Mayday until the 18th Century. As trade societies evolved from guilds, to friendly societies and eventually into unions, the craft traditions remained strong into the early 19th century.
May Day has been celebrated in Ireland since pagan times as the feast of Bealtaine and in latter times as Mary’s day. Traditionally, bonfires were lit to mark the coming of summer and to banish the long nights of winter. Officially Irish May Day holiday is the first Monday in May. Old traditions such as bonfires are no longer widely observed, though the practice still persists in some places across the country. Limerick, Clare and many other people in other counties still keep on this tradition such as the town of Arklow in Co. Wicklow.
May Day festivities at National Park Seminary in Maryland, 1907.
May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. In some parts of the United States, May Baskets are made. These are small baskets usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone’s doorstep. The giver rings the bell and runs away. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver; if caught, a kiss is exchanged.
During the Cold War, May Day celebrations fell out of favor due to its association with the USSR.
Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. vary greatly from region to region and many unite both the holidays “Green Root” (pagan) and “Red Root” (labor) traditions.
May 1 is also recognized in the U.S. as Law Day.
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