Celebrate May Day 2019! Though it may seem quaint now, in decades past, the May Day Basket—like the ancient act of dancing around the Maypole—was a widespread symbol of spring in the United States and other countries. Discover the traditions of this holiday and how the May 1 celebration began!
Origins of May Day
Did you know that May Day has its roots in astronomy? We’re (about) halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice!
It’s one of the four ancient Celtic cross-quarter days, which celebrated the midway points between all solstices and equinoxes of the year. As a matter of fact, both Groundhog Day and Halloween are also based on ancient cross-quarter days (Imbolc and Samhain, respectively).
The Celtic “May Day” was called Beltane. This was a springtime celebration filled with dance and song to hail the sown fields starting to sprout. Cattle were driven to pasture, special bonfires were lit, and both doors of houses and livestock were decorated with yellow May flowers. In essence, Beltane was a fertility celebration, with the dance aligned with the power of the Sun.
In parts of Ireland, people would make a May bush, which typically was a thorn bush or branch decorated with flowers and ribbons. Special wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness.
May Day or Beltane (May 1) was a time for the pairing of young couples, although not yet for their wedding, which would not come until the Quarter Day which was called Midsummer Day (June 24). Midsummer is basically the same as the Summer Solstice, so there were approximately 6 weeks between May 1 and Midsummer for the couple to get to know each other. This is how the “June Wedding” became a tradition.
When is May Day?
This one is easy to remember: May Day occurs annually on May 1! See which day of the week May Day falls:
|2019||Wednesday, May 1|
|2020||Friday, May 1|
|2021||Saturday, May 1|
The Maypole Dance
Wrapping a Maypole with colorful ribbons might be the most known tradition that still exists in some schools and towns.
Originally, the Maypole was a living tree brought in from the woods with much merrymaking. Ancient Celts danced around the tree, praying for good crops and fertility. For younger people, there was the possibility of courtship. If paired by sundown, the courtship continued and then the wedding happened 6 weeks later on June’s Midsummer’s Day. The more raucous elements of the fertility ritual were toned down after the arrival of Christianity. Only the customs of the Maypole dance and May baskets survived in “G-rated” form.
In the Middle Ages, all villages had Maypoles. Towns would compete to see who had the tallest or best Maypole. Over time, this Old English festival incorporated dance performances, plays, and literature. People wouldl crown a “May Queen” for the day’s festivities.
The Maypole dance became a common rite of spring at colleges from the late 19th century through the 1950s. Seen as a wholesome tradition, this celebration often included class plays, Scottish dancing, Morris dancing, a cappella concerts, and various cultural dancing and music displays.
In the 1960s and 1970s, interest waned; the May Queen and her court became more of a popularity contest.
Today, the Maypole dance is mainly celebrated in schools (from elementary though college) as a fun spring tradition and sometimes medieval festival.
Did you ever dance around the Maypole as a child? (Please tell us below!)
Ever heard of the May baskets? People would leave a paper basket or cone with spring flowers and sweets on each other’s doorsteps, usually anonymously.
This tradition was popular through the 19th and 20th centuries, especially with children or sweethearts. The custom was to knock on the door, yell “May basket!,” and then run. If the recipient caught the giver, he or she was entitled to a kiss.
Louisa May Alcott wrote about May Basket Day in the late 1800s. In the 1920s, some bold schoolchildren hung a May basket on the White House door for First Lady Grace Coolidge.
First lady Grace Coolidge receives a May basket from young children. Credit: Library of Congress
Consider leaving a May Day Basket of flowers on someone’s doorstep or doorknob. Some flowers have certain meanings that can convey the joy of the season! Here’s more about the language of flowers.
May Day Lore and Traditions
Here are some joyful May Day traditions marking the return of spring and the renewed gift of life.
- 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.
- On May 1, people in Britain welcome spring by “Bringing in the May,” or gathering cuttings of flowering trees for their homes.
- May 1 in Hawaii is called “Lei Day,” and people will receive prizes on this day for wearing the prettiest handmade leis. One of the most common flowers to use in a lei is the beautiful jasmine!
- Villagers may hold theatrical battles between “summer” and “winter” that banish the winter.
- Kids can go barefoot on May Day for the first time.
- Beekeepers will move bees on May 1. Want to get involved in beekeeping? Check out our series on starting a honeybee hive!
- Fishermen expect to catch fish on May Day. Find our Best Fishing Days here.
- Farmers often planted corn, cucumbers, and turnips on this day. See our Planting Calendar to find planting dates for your area.
- The Kentucky Derby starts off the month of May (the first Saturday of the month).
What Does “Mayday!” Mean?
The term “Mayday!” is not related to the “May Day” spring festival, but instead comes from the French phrase M’aidez!, 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.
So, now you know all about May Day! As colts and calves kick up their heels, seedlings seek the Sun, and birds call for mates, we humans may join their revels for one day: during spring’s “May Day” festival! Even serious-minded folks can put work aside to enjoy Nature’s exuberance!
Do you celebrate May Day? Share your traditions in the comments below.