May Day 2020: What is May Day?

Celebrate the Halfway Point to Summer on May 1

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. 

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.

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!


     

  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!).


    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!


     

  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.

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.