May Day 2021: What Is May Day?

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Celebrate the Halfway Point to Summer on May 1

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May Day (May 1) is a holiday rich in history and folklore, celebrating the return of spring! Learn about some of the fun traditions, from May Day baskets to dancing around the maypole. Here are 10 ways to "bring in the May."

Origins of May Day

Did you know that May Day has its roots in astronomy? It's the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice! In ancient times, this was one of the Celtic cross-quarter days which mark the midway points between the (four) solstices and equinoxes of the year.

As with many early holidays, May Day was rooted in agriculture. Springtime festivities filled with song and dance celebrated the sown fields starting to sprout. Cattle were driven to pasture, special bonfires were lit, and doors of houses as well as livestock were decorated with yellow May flowers. In the Middle Ages, the Gaelic people celebrated the festival of Beltane. Beltane means "Day of Fire." People created large bonfires and danced at night to celebrate. 

May Day has a long history and tradition in England, some of which eventually came to America. Children would dance around the Maypole holding onto colorful ribbons. People would "bring in the May" by gathering wildflowers and green branches, weaving of floral hoops and hair garlands, and crowning a May king and queen. 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 in coming years: 

What Day Is May Day?

Year May Day
2021 Saturday, May 1
2022 Sunday, May 1
2023 Monday, May 1
2024 Wednesday, May 1

The Maypole Dance

Did you ever dance around the Maypole as a child? Wrapping a Maypole with colorful ribbons is a joyous tradition that still exists in some schools and communities.

  • Originally, the Maypole was a living tree chosen 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 a young woman and man paired by sundown, their courtship continued so that the couple could get to know each other and, possibly, marry 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 was in many European countries.

Interestingly, from the late 19th century through the 1950s, the Maypole dance and festivities became a rite of spring at some U.S. colleges. Seen as a wholesome tradition, this celebration often included class plays, Scottish dancing, Morris dancing, a cappella concerts, and 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 activity.

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Making a May Basket

Ever heard of the May baskets? People would leave a paper basket or cone containing 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, although it's not well known today. To make a simple May basket, fold a piece of colored paper into the shape of a cone. Then fill with wildflowers! If you don't have colored paper, roll up and secure (with tape or a staple) a paper plate. Draw on the plate with spring colors and fill with flowers!

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 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 other 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 leis. Leis are garlands or wreaths that are often made with native Hawaiian flowers and leaves. These days, leis are given as a symbol of greeting, farewell, affection, celebration, or honor—all 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 your 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; typically this 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).

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What Does "Mayday!" Mean?

Here's a fun fact: 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, realize that it is an urgent distress call. (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.

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Comments

Kimberly Burdge (not verified)

2 months 1 week ago

Growing up we always did really nice May baskets for nearly all of the neighbors in our small community, as they did for us. All were anonymous. Just as your article states. But when we moved to Chicago the tradition was just . . . dead, I don't know, no one did it, just a few, we participated of course, but it wasn't as much of a festivity. Then moving to Florida was even worse, because NO ONE celebrated May Day. We got up so excited - we were always excited for May Day, and nothing was on the porch, and so we dropped off the few May baskets we had already put together, but it was a sad day. We never did it again after that.:-(

Ruth Gardner (not verified)

7 months ago

Growing up in New York City in the 30's and 40's I remember May 1 being moving day! At least in my family. LOL

;

Jim Livingston (not verified)

7 months ago

I remember in grade school a girl from our class came to our house and left a may basket and knocked on the door and yelled mayday and then she ran. I don't remember if I tried to catch her and kiss her or not. (I should have if I didn't) Fun days in the 40s and 50s growing up in a small farm town in Saybrook Ill. Lots of fun traditions.

Carol (not verified)

7 months ago

My daughter’s birthday is May 1st. I was blessed to be able to choose her birthday because I had a c-section and I chose this day because of my wonderful memories of May baskets growing up. My mother made May baskets out of tissue paper, put a paper cupcake liner in the bottom and braided a handle with the paper and tied it after she gathered the basket at the top. When you held it up it looked lacy. One year in her retirement she worked for me. I was a store manager at a restaurant for 34 years and we had a kids night. She came in to teach them how to make them. Such a great memory for me. And we have a lady here in town that makes the cone baskets out of the sheets of scrap booking paper. She decorates them with buttons, little plastic animals, flowers and so many other sweet things. They are called Happy Jackie’s May Baskets. She made over 500 this year. The grocery store that she works for allows her to go into their store to sell them. She sold out and made a little under $3000! The money will go to scholarships for graduating seniors, the Fire Department and a few charities! 100% goes to them!

vicki (not verified)

7 months 4 weeks ago

My friend and I have our kindergarten students deliver baskets to houses around our school We love this tradition so much that we wrote a book about it. It's called: A May Basket for Frannie. We are hoping this tradition continues to spread. Our students learn so much about kindness and giving through on this day. Some neighbors even send thank you notes back to them.