May Day 2020: What is May Day?

Celebrate the Halfway Point to Summer on May 1

April 16, 2020
May Day Basket
Milleflore/Shutterstock

May Day (May 1) is a holiday rich in history and folklore, celebrating the return of spring! As a child, we remember our grandparents leaving delightful little May Day baskets, as well as the fun tradition of dancing around the maypole at school. Learn more about May Day and 10 ways to “bring in the May.”

Origins of May Day

May Day has its roots in astronomy. We’re (about) halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice! It’s one of the Celtic cross-quarter days, which celebrated the midway points between all solstices and equinoxes of the year.

As with many early holidays, May Day was rooted in agriculture. Springtime celebrations filled with dance and song hailed 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. 

Later, celebrations evolved to speak more to the “bringing in the May” with the gathering of wildflowers and green branches, the weaving of floral garlands, the crowning of a May king and queen, and the setting up of a decorated May tree, or Maypole, around which people danced. Such rites originally may have been intended to ensure fertility for crops and, by extension, for livestock and humans, but in most cases this significance was gradually lost, so that the practices survived largely as popular festivities. 

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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: 

Year May Day
2020 Friday, May 1
2021 Saturday, May 1
2022 Sunday, May 1
2023 Monday, 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 so that the couple could get to know each other and married 6 weeks later on June’s Midsummer’s Day. This is how the “June Wedding” became a tradition.

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 would crown a “May Queen” for the day’s festivities. 

The strict Puritans of New England considered the celebrations of May Day to be licentious and pagan, so they forbade its observance, and the springtime holiday never became an important part of American culture as it has in many European countries.

However, 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.

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Making a May Basket

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.

The May Day basket is still a cherished tradition for some Americans though it’s less known today. To make a simple May basket, simply take a colored piece of paper and fold it into a cone; then fill with wildflowers! If you don’t have colored paper, even a rolled-up paper plate would do. Draw on the plate with spring colors and fill with flowers! Cut a handle out of a cereal box or another paper plate and staple to the cone.

You could also fill a real basket with little gifts such as flower seed packets, baked cookies, candies, and pretty trinkets. If you don’t have a basket, an empty milk carton or seed pot would also do the trick. Just cover in colored paper or pretty streamers and fill with tissue paper!


First lady Grace Coolidge receives a May basket from young children. Credit: Library of Congress

10 Ways to Celebrate May Day

Why not celebrate May Day? Here are some joyful May Day traditions marking the return of spring and the renewed gift of life. 

  1. Among the many superstitions associated with May Day was the belief that washing the face with dew on the morning of May 1 would beautify the skin and bring good luck. We say, go ahead! Walk outside and sprinkle your face with the morning dew (or snow!). 
     
  2. On May 1, people in Britain welcome spring by “Bringing in the May,” or gathering cuttings of flowering trees for their homes. Bring in branches of forsythia, magnolia, redbud, lilac, or flowering branches in your region!

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  3. Make that May Day Basket of flowers! Get the kids involved. We like this little fellow’s homemade basket which he’s probably leaving for mom (shhh!).

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    Credit: Suzanne Tucker. 
     

  4. May 1 in Hawaii is called “Lei Day,” and people make pretty handmade leis. Leis are garlands or wreaths that are often made with native Hawaiian flowers and leaves. Nowadays, they are given as a symbol of greeting, farewell, affection, celebration, or honor, in the spirit of aloha. Make a lei or a garland for your yourself or your mother!
     
  5. Kids would go barefoot on May Day for the first time. Whatever you age today, walk barefoot in the morning dew (or snow?). Encourage the kids to do the same!
     
  6. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May bush, which typically was a thorn bush or branch decorated with flowers and ribbons. Create your own May bush or tree! Just decorate with colored ribbons!

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  7. Beekeepers traditionally moved bees on May 1. Want to get involved in beekeeping? Check out our series on starting a honeybee hive!
     
  8. Fishermen expect to catch fish on May Day. Find our Best Fishing Days here.
     
  9. Traditionally, farmers planted turnips on this day. See our Planting Calendar to find planting dates for your area.
     
  10. The Kentucky Derby starts off the month of May (the first Saturday of the month).  On May 2, 2020, due to COVID-19, Churchhill Downs decided to hold its first-ever virtual race and “Kentucky Derby at Home” party so that everyone can join in.

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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.

Source: 

The Old Farmer's Almanac

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Reader Comments

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May 1st

The origin of May 1st that is recognized almost all over the world has its origin in Chicago, USA in 1890.
Workers demonstrated fo get 8 hours working day, it ended up in a massacre. Strangely but true, USA is one of the very few states who doesn't recognize that.

May Procession

Every first of May, our parochial school held a "May Procession". All elem. students wore our Sunday best to marched around the school to the front where we would see a table with the statue of Mary, mother of Jesus surrounded by flowers. Parents, teachers and students then would welcome the spring season with hymns. The table was on display for the week after for all to enjoy as they passed by.

May Day Birthday!

I was born on May 1st and was referred to as the "The May Basket Baby". Always thought it was such a special day to be born on. I love flowers and gardening. Daffodils and Lily of the Valley are my favorite flowers..funny that the Lily of the Valley is the flower for May!!

May Baskets

I made my first May basket out of construction paper, when I was in the First Grade. Our teacher told us to take it home and fill it with flowers as a surprise for our parents or a neighbor. When my mom got home from work that evening, she helped me pick different flowers around the yard, and together we left it at our neighbor Rita's house. I remember Rita calling when she found the May basket, and the delight in her voice. Life was hectic, and we never continued the May Day tradition in our home, but I will always treasure this memory.

May Day Memories..

I grew up in central Minnesota and I remember getting up early before I had to go to school my senior year and gathering flowers, and leaving them on doorsteps, and ringing the doorbell, yelling “Happy May Day” and running away laughing.

May Day

A very Happy Birthday to you, Debbie Manning. May it be brimful with joy.

May Day

May Day is my birthday! I have memories of many maypoles at my birthday parties as a child. My Mother always went all out!!

May Day in my youth

My elementary school had a huge annual celebration. We had a May pole, learned new dances, wore costumes ( I was little bow peep and brought in a lamb).
I think this day evolved into Field Day when the classes compete in sports .
Perhaps the Cold War and a division with Communism made our school give up this lovely day.

May Day

Excellent read. Thank you x

May Day

When I was in sixth grade my brothers and I would hike down to a creek and dig up a red bud tree that was just starting to bloom. We carried it home, planted it around our patio. Over the next 5 yrs we did this annually and later it filled in the area with shade and beauty for many years!

May Day

Seize the means of production

May Day Festivities

I do look back with happy memories to the May Day Festivals we had in Elementary School. There were different activities all day long, including going outside for the May Pole Dance and other events. This was in the late 60s.

May Day?

Did children leave the May baskets on neighbors' and friends' doorknobs the night BEFORE May Day (i.e., on April 30th evening) or on the evening of May Day itself (May 1)?

May flowers

My grandmother,a teacher in elementary had to raise me and my sister I was 3my sister4we glued and stapled together cones with a handle next morning gma would cut her flowers and tell us storys about may 1st I don't remember why one each and you said and could not get caught,my grandma's laugh I still remember,this was in the 60 thank you for letting me share my

Just eloped on May day!!

Just eloped on May day!!

May Day

I never did the May Pole in my school but we did do the May baskets. I remember coming home and showing my little brother how to make one so we made up one and left it on the door of this elderly woman who lived alone, we thought it would brighten her day and feel less lonely.

May Day Baskets

When my children were young, I started the tradition of delivering May Day baskets to our neighbors. We always had fun sneaking around after dark the night before to place the baskets on their doorsteps. My kids are now teenagers and we still deliver them even though we have since moved out of the neighborhood. Every year, we bring along a couple of their friends who have never before participated in the fun. Hopefully, they will continue the tradition with their own children.

MayDay

I've wondered about MayDay from time to time. My sister graduated from high school in 1964. Our school had a MayDay celebration that my sister and classmates danced around the maypole. I can't remember if I was in school or not. I just remember everyone dressed up and attended the celebration. I don't know what grade my sister was in. But there's pictures in her annual/yearbook. The tradition didn't last. That's the only one I recall but have always remembered it. Thank y'all for all the info about it. I've always been so curious about it but could never find any good answers til now.

May Day

Every May 1 at dawn, there is a little gathering in a park here, with songs and dance, 'dancing in May Day'. We have a troop of Morris dancers who participate and then travel around town to local libraries and dance on the sidewalks. Such fun! I wish I was younger and more energetic, I would love to be a Morris dancer.

May Day

I always have celebrated May Day...it's my birthday!!!
When I was in elementary school in the late 50's and early 60's we did one May Pole dance. And 50 + years later, I still remember how it goes! (Please don't ask me to show you!!!)
It was a fun thing to do and I still wonder to this day, why the school didn't keep doing it!

Favorite May Day Memory.....

One of my favorite May Day memory was that there was a pretty girl that lived down the street from me and I would always delivery a May Basket to Linda hoping to get caught because secretly I wanted to be kissed. Being very young, 8 - 10 years old, It was the only way that a young lad like me could get kissed without being teased by others. Aaahh youth.

MAY POLE MEMORIES

Growing up in Brooklyn, NY in the '50's I definitely remember dancing around the May Pole. My mother made my costume of a peasant blouse and a full skirt decorated with multi-colored satin ribbons. We would practice different ethnic folk dances such as the polka and the tarantella at school and on the special day the different elementary schools would gather at a city park and we would all dance around our individually decorated May poles. Interestingly enough, even the boys had a good time. LOL!

Maypole, Pumpkin Center, California

It was the spring of 1953 . My sister and I attended the Panama School in Pumpkin Center California. Our mother had made our gathered skirts. Mine was green with pink rick-rack,and my sisters was blue with pink rick-rack.. We had drawn partners and I had drawn our cousin and my sister had the drawn the little boy I wanted to dance with. Well to make it a short story- Her dance partner got sick and the teacher took my partner for my sisters., reason been teacher said "Well you did have the lead part in Sleeping Beauty, now it is your sisters time to shine. "So I had to sit it out and all my sister could say was,"She had to dance with her blooming cousin",ouch

Dancing around the May Pole

Such a sweet article. I definitely danced around the May Pole as a child. It was part of a May Day festival at my school, and the fourth graders were the ones who got to dance around the May Pole each year. I definitely remember that we practiced for it. It was a very special day that we all looked forward to. I remember it being very beautiful! I'm not *that* old either! This was in the 1980s!

May Day

We never had a Maypole dance when I was a kid, but we made little cone shaped "may baskets" out of pretty wrapping paper, and the teacher stapled on ribbon handles for us. In the back of our school was a huge wooded area, and in those days we were allowed to go there and pick violets, marshmallows and the dandelions that grew there. These we carried home to our moms in the wrapping paper cone baskets.

Other things on May 1st

May 1st is also International Workers Day, and celebrated instead of Labour Day in 130 countries.

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!

Maypole Dance

We danced at the Denver Auditorium in the '70s when I was in elementary school and it was really fun!

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