May Day 2020: What is May Day?

Celebrate the Halfway Point to Summer on May 1st!

June 28, 2019
May Day Maypole

Celebrate May Day 2020! 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.

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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 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 would 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!)

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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.


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.

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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).

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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

Leave a Comment

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!

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.

May Day

We lived in Honolulu, Oahu(Hawaii) and we celebrated May Day is Lei Day. We would go with our school classes to the downtown statue of King Kamahamaha where 20 ft leis were on his statue. The day would be filled with singing and games. We had so much fun.