What better way to usher in spring and celebrate the growth it has to offer than with a frolicking holiday? May Day, celebrated on May 1st throughout modern Europe, is just such an affair and is steeped in long-set traditions. Celebrated as far back as Celtic times, May Day as a pagan holiday was originally called “Beltane”, or “the fire of Bel”. As a celebration of new life and fertility, it was believed to be the beginning of summer, thus dividing the year into halves. The Romans brought their springtime celebration of Flora, the goddess of flowers, (Floralia) to the British Isles and combined it with the Beltane celebrations already established by the Celts.
By the Middle Ages, May Day celebrations were firmly established in England and were pleasurable affairs that included the gathering of wildflowers and creation of floral garlands. Flower-gathering was called “fetching home the May” and “going a-Maying". The puritans hated the going-a-Maying because it was associated with paganism and they therefore believed it led to immoral behavior.
Women and girls wandered outside on May Day morning to collect morning dew to wash their faces. This dew was believed to have magical properties to ensure a flawless complexion for the entire year and was also believed to remove spots, pimples and freckles.
The floral crowning of the May King and Queen was a highlight of the celebrations and was symbolic of fertility and growth of crops.
A May “pole” would be chosen from the woodlands and set up temporarily in the center of small towns, clad with colorful streamers and ribbons. Permanent maypoles were often set up in large cities. Permanent maypoles still stand on the village greens at Welford-on-Avon and at Dunchurch, Warwickshire. The largest Maypole in England is said to stand in Barwick in Yorkshire, boasting a height of 30 meters (approx. 98’) - if residents can be believed.
Jack-in-the-Green, or the Green Man, is another traditional symbol associated with May Day that appeared in England in the 1700’s. Thought to have originated with the flower garlands carried on the heads of milkmaids during May Day celebrations, the Jack-in-the-Green is dressed in an elaborate framework covered in flowers and foliage and topped with a flower garland. Guilds and other trade groups in England tried to outdo each other in celebration with Mayday parades, and it was the guild of the chimneysweeps that created the character of the Green Man.
Accompanying Jack-in-the-Green in procession are often attendants, Morris Dancers, musicians and other unusual characters. Morris dancing, a type of English ritual dance dating from medieval times, is a dance of rhythmic stepping and choreography by a group. Bell pads are worn on their shins and dancers use sticks, swords and handkerchiefs as added accompaniment. The Morris Dance has been used to celebrate the change in seasons and the planting and harvesting of crops since the time of Shakespeare. Crops are believed to grow as high as the dancers can leap! The dance is believed to bring fertility and abundance to those who watch. Today in Richmond, Virginia, the "More or Less Morris Dancers" often perform at Agecroft Hall.
Mayday celebrations were banned during the reign of Henry VIII, leading to a May Day riot in 1517. Fourteen rioters were hanged, and the King pardoned 400 others. May Day was nearly thoroughly squashed during the English Civil War and the ensuing governmental control of the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. Village maypoles were taken down throughout the country as maypole dancing was seen as “a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness”. Dancing did not return until the Restoration under Charles II. May Day never took root in America as it was forbidden in Puritan New England.
Today, May 1st is the celebration of the International Workers’ Day holiday honoring workers and the labour movement.