What is May Day?

Celebrate Spring on May 1st!

May Day Maypole

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This article describes the traditions of May Day and how the May 1st celebration began.

With winter’s retreat, colts and calves kick up their heels and frisk over fresh grass, seedlings seek the sun, and birds call for mates….

And we humans join their revels for one day:  during spring’s “May Day” festival, even serious-minded folk put work aside to enjoy Nature’s exuberance!

Origins of May Day

The ancient Celts called it “Beltane”—this day halfway between spring and summer that coincides with the return of fertility to the earth.

Young people would wake on Beltane morning knowing that they could be paired with a mate by sundown! If their courtship continued, the wedding would occur six weeks later, on June’s Midsummer’s Day. 

The Maypole Dance

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These same young people likely participated in the fertility rites of Beltane by dancing around a living tree to celebrate the fecundity of their community along with the livestock and crops they relied on.  This tree later became the familiar May Day Maypole that children delight in now. 

Occasionally, over the centuries, the Maypole was banned because of its pagan origins and the bawdy revelry that it sometimes inspired.  But it kept reappearing and, over time, the spring dances and festivals associated with it became more accepted, and even anticipated. disney-maypole-pixabay-1280x853px.jpg

Today, some Maypole Dances are quite complex: a choreographed dance of weaving, twirling people plaiting or winding colorful ribbons towards the Maypole and back out again! Did you ever dance around the Maypole as a child?  If so, what sort of ribbons did you use? Please share your comments below!

May Day Customs

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Here are some joyful May Day traditions marking the return of spring and the renewed gift of life. 

  • Neighbors may leave baskets of flowers on each other’s doorsteps or doorknobs.
  • Kids can go barefoot on May Day for the first time.
  • People will crown a “May Queen” for the day’s festivities.
  • Beekeepers will move bees on May 1st.
  • Fishermen expect to catch fish on May Day.
  • On May Day morning, if a maiden gathers dew before sunup and sprinkles her face with it, she will enjoy luck and youthful beauty for the rest of the year.
  • Farmers often plant corn, cucumbers, and turnips on this day.
  • Villagers may hold theatrical battles between “summer” and “winter” that banish the winter. 
  • The Kentucky Derby starts off the month of May (the first Saturday of the month).
  • On May 1st, people in Britain welcome spring by “Bringing in the May,” or gathering cuttings of flowering trees for their homes.
  • May 1st in Hawaii is called “Lei Day,” and people will receive prizes this day for wearing the prettiest handmade leis. 

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What Does “Mayday” Mean?

The term “Mayday” is not related to the “May Day” spring festival but, rather, comes from the French phrase “M’aider” which means, “Help me.” If you hear “Mayday” repeated three times, it is an urgent distress call of the highest order.  To signal that you need help but are not in a life-threatening situation, repeat the phrase “Pan-pan” three times when calling for assistance. 

Source: 

The Old Farmer's Almanac

Reader Comments

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When I was a kid.

Yes,about 70 some years ago with my wonderful classmates using crepe paper streamers & crepe paper matching customs made by our creative teachers at Leith,ND. Was the social event of the school year - loved it.

May Day when I was a kid

I would make a basket out of paper and put candy in it. I would place it on my next door neighbors front porch (a nice older lady) and ring her doorbell, then run and hide. The folklore of it is if the person sees you or finds you, you have to kiss them.

Maypole dance

We danced around the maypole in elementary school when I was a kid - this was the 70's in New York City public schools. I remember that this was so much fun!

May Day

When I was a kid in elementary school, the teachers would bring in pretty paper and teach us how to do origami folded "baskets". We'd staple on handles and take them home to fill with flowers (mostly dandelions and violets from the lawn and the local park) to give to our mothers on May 1st. As a member of the Aux. Coast Guard, I can say we're all fine with May Day, but we hope not to hear any of you say "Mayday"!

Maypole dance

I remember dancing in this ritual at Pleasant Valley Elementary School in Wichita, KS, in the mid-1950's! The streamers were made of crepe paper! I have a photograph of me and my fellow dancers that made it to the local newspapers.

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