and The 3 Bears
The History of May Day
May Day is the 1st day
in May, regardless of what day of the week it falls on. But unlike April
1st, which has to do with tricks, May 1st has to do with the celebration of
Springtime, and is an ancient pagan holiday going back to the time of the
Celts. May Day's origin is purely pagan. The Celts observed a
festival called "Beltane" by the lighting of bonfires to honor their
sun god and welcome back Spring again.
But, the Celts weren't
the only ones who were glad winter was over with. The Romans celebrated,
"Floralia" (Festival of Flowers) for 6 days at the end of April and
the beginning of May. Many of the customs of May Day today, originate from
the Roman celebrations and Greek such as gathering flowers and weaving them into
wreaths or head garlands.
communities started celebrating Spring by decorating their homes with the
first-blooming flowers and selecting a Queen of the May and then dancing around
what is known today as the May Pole (see below for more details).
The custom was to have
women first wash their faces in the early morning with the dew on May 1.
They believed that by doing this, it would improve their complexions and bring
them eternal youthfulness. Throughout the Middle Ages, into the
Renaissance and even into the 19th Century, May Day was widely observed
throughout Europe and America. But...
The Puritans were an
exception to the rule. They persecuted anyone who participated in May Day
celebrations claiming it was a heathen custom, and preferred their children
spend the day reading the bible.
Although May Day began
to welcome in Spring, it later gained political significance in some
countries. May Day is celebrated in America, Europe (especially
England) and in some areas that were once the former Soviet Union.
Socialists in 1889 decided to make May Day their Labor Day and renamed it,
turning it into a day to honor the working man.
governments are socialistic or communistic still celebrate May 1 with speeches,
and displays of their military strength. The May Day parade in Moscow's
Red Square is one of the better known examples of this. However, since the
Soviet Union has dissolved, it's been somewhat toned down.
Since the United States
has Labor Day in September, it keeps May Day as a day to celebrate Spring, young
love, and romance. But ironically, May 1st marks the anniversary of the
1886 Chicago labor rally that resulted in the Haymarket Riot and the subsequent
of the labor anarchy movement.
May Day is not a
national holiday in the United States. But, the state of Hawaii does
observe it as Lei Day by exchanging the traditional Hawaiian flower necklaces as
symbols of good luck and friendship.
of May Day
Since May Day
symbolizes spring, it's only logical that flowers which start to bloom in spring
are it's main symbol. Garlands of flowers were an important part of the
English May Day ceremonies that it was often renamed Garland Day.
The custom of
"bringing in the May" meant to go out in the field (or woods) early in
the morning on May 1st and return with baskets full of flowers. Sometimes
these flowers would be strung together in long chains. A common activity
today is for children to make what is called "daisy chains" in the
springtime as soon as they bloom, although not just on May 1.
Another custom was to
tie just one single blossom to the end of a long wand. Sometimes the
flowers made a crown for the May Queen. In Greece, wild flowers are still
gathered and woven into May Day wreaths, which are then hung to dry until June
23, which is known as St. John's Eve and burned in the midsummer bonfires.
Up until the end of the
19th century, the "May Birchers" in England would go from house to
house on May Day Eve and decorate the doors with boughs of trees or flowers to
signify their opinion of the person(s) inside that home. In some areas,
the plants were chosen becuse they rhymed with the word describing the person.
"Fair of Face = Pear bough on door.
"Glum Person" = Plum branches
Needless to say, this
custom upset so many people that it was discontinued.
in the Green
Jack in the Green is a
leaf-covered figure in England and part of May Day celebrations. He
usually was a young chimney sweep hidden inside a 6-10 foot high wicker
framework made of hoops and covered in holly and ivy. (Ouch! For those
that do not know how prickly holly leaves are.) This leafy figure danced
as the head of a parade of chimney sweeps that went through the village singing
songs and collecting pennies.
Jack in the Green is
believed to be a relic of ancient European tree worship (see our Celtic
horoscopes page). The Gypsies of Romania and Translyvania still
observe their Green George Festival on April 23. To them, Green George is
a tree spirit represented by a local boy dressed up in branches, leaves and
flowers. Humans dressed up as trees are considered to be an example of May
Day's pagan origins.
In 19th century United
States, the custom of hanging small baskets filled with flowers became
popular. It is still done in some communities throughout the US today and
not just for May Day. Many towns have an organization that voluntarily
goes and puts flower baskets in various parts of public areas of their
towns. In other cases, the flower baskets are not real, but are made of
woven strips of colored paper decorated with lace-paper doilies and
ribbons. They're filled with flowers, candy and sometimes a short poem
with the name of the person for whom they are intended. The custom is to
hang the basket on the person's front door, ring the bell and then dash away
before the door is opened. This is a lot like a surprise Valentine or
Halloween trick-or-treating in a way. In Iowa, it is the custom children
to leave May Baskets on the doors of those they have crushes on because flowers
symbolize love, fertility and the arrival of spring.
previously, the Romans had their flower celebration to their goddess of flowers,
Flora. They spent the first day of the month gathering flowers as
offerings to this goddess. Sometimes, rather than wreaths or garlands,
Roman children made small images of Flora instead, decorating it with
flowers. After Christianity got introduced into Rome, the church tried to
replace some of these pagan May Day customs. Thus, the May Dolls soon
resembled the Virgin Mary.
The most well-known
symbol of May Day is the maypole. They go back to the pagan custom in
which trees (birth or fir normally) were brought into the village square through
a solemn parade. Later, in the 16th and 17th centuries many towns in England
erected permanent poles that were left to stand for the rest of the year and
decorated only on May Day. The shaft was often painted with stripes and
the flower doll was fastened on the top. A tuft of greenery of some sort
was left on the end of the pole as a reminder that it was a symbol of the newly
awakened spirit of fertility and vegetation.
Colorful ribbons (or
streamers) were then hung from the pole and people would dance around it holding
the ends of the streamers in such a way that they were woven into a pattern as
the dancers progressed. Today the Maypole dance is often performed by
traditional English Morris dancers (not just common folks) who wear hats
decorated with ribbons and flowers and streamers on their wrists and
elbows. They also have bells strapped to their calves and hold white
handerchiefs and clack wooden sticks. The bells and sticks in pagan times
were used to frighten evil spirits and the dancers high leaps were believed to
encourage the crops to grow tall.
Remember I said in
America the Puritans hated May Day? They did not like this idea of dancing
around the Maypole at all because they interpreted it as a phallic symbol and
the dance as a lusty, pagan fertility ritual that had no place in their
civilized world. So they tried to stomp out the custom, but to no avail 100%.
of the May
Maia, the ancient Roman
goddess of growth and Spring, plus Flora their goddess of flowers are both the
symbols for the Queen of May ceremony of May Day. The Queen is usually
picked from the girls of the town (how depends on each town) and is often
accompanied by a May King. Some even have a May court also.
Villagers then dressed
up as shepherds, jesters, chimney sweeps, Morris dancers and a Jack of the Green
also. For the most part, today the May King is gone. But many schools in
London, still chose a May Queen.
In the United States,
all attempts to make May Day a Christian holiday pointed it int he direction of
Mary, the mother of Jesus. So, in many places today in the U.S., where May
Day is celebrated with the crowing of a May Queen, there is often a parade that
leads to the local church where the Queen then places a crown (or her the crown
on her head?) of flowers on the statue of Mary.
In the Appalachian area
of the United States, there is folklore surrounding planting on May
Day. In Phebe, TN years ago farmers believed that it was necessary
to hang long-necked gourds between their legs when planting turnips on May
1. They'd march through their plowed fields and chant something to the
turnips to grow to be as big as the gourds they wore between their
legs. They seemed to be a little sexist when it came to planting turnips
because they felt that shouldn't plant turnips and if they did, they'd have no
success at all. Well, some felt she just 'might' if she wore one of those
gourds between her legs too. :D
However, because women
are the ones who give birth, they were revered as having a fertility impact on
And, although they felt
that women were incapable of succeeding when planting turnips, they believed
that they did better than men when it came to growing cucumbers, especially if
planted on May Day. Another odd planting custom of the past was to have
farmers plant their watermelon crops without anything on from the waist
down. For some reason, the old farmers felt that the virility of the
farmer determined the quality of the cucumber. There are other planting
rituals that are related to fertility, but they are a tad obscene.
1. If a young
girl plucks a white (not a pink) dogwood blossom on May Day morning and puts it
in her bosom, the first man she meets wearing a white hat will have the same
Christian name as her future husband.
2. If a single
girl puts her handkerchief out on the grass on May Day Eve, the name of her
future husband will be written on it in the morning. (Note: In Ireland they
believe it is written by a snail crawling over it.)
3. If a maiden
takes on May Day morning takes a mirror to the spring, then turning her back to
the spring, she looks in the mirror and she will see the figure of her
lover rise out of the water behind her.
4. If you take a
mirror on the first day of May and hold it over a well, you will see your future
husband reflected in the mirror.
5. If you find a
snail really early on May Day morning, and then lay it on a board, it will make
your future husband's initials when it crawls.
6. On the April
30, a girl should put a snail on a plate of meal under her bed.
In the morning, the initial of her future husband will be on the plate.
7. Early on the
morning of May 1, look out your window and count the number of live things that
you see. That will be the number of years before you marry.
8. On May 1st,
look for birds' nests. The number of eggs you find will be the number of
years you will be single.
9. On the morning
of May Day, get up very early and before you speak to anyone, look out your
window. The number of chickens you see will represent the number of years
before you marry.
10. On the
morning of May 1, a maiden should get up early and speak to no one. She
should then go under the cedar tree and turn around 3 times and then listen for
noises. If she hears singing, she will be happily married. If she
hears knocking, it is the driving of nails in her coffin and she will die before
she marries. If she hears no sound at all, she'll never marry.
11. On May 1, walk
around a wheat field and you will meet your mate.
12. On May 1, in
the morning, place a glass of water in the sun at sunrise and let it remain all
day. At sunset, look into the water. If you are to die an old maid
or bachelor, a coffin will appear in the water.
Charms for May Day
OK, so you may meet
your future husband, but that doesn't mean he's going to fall in love with
you. Thus, they also had some love charms for May Day also:
1. Liverwort is
also called "Heart Leaf." And, so their shape has been used as a
love philter for years. To infallibly win the love of any man you desire,
secretly throw over his clothing some powder made by rubbing together some heart
leafs that have been dried before the fire.
If you want to have
lots of men desire you, just wear the heart leaf in your cleavage. It is also
assumed that a man could do this also and it would work.
2. Take some mistletoe
leaves and give each one the name of your suitors. Then place them in front of
the fire in a line. This is a way you can test each one's affection for
you. The heat will cause the leaf that you are standing closest to to pop
over is the one who is the most sincerest to you.
3. Take the yolk
out of a hard-boiled egg and fill the empty hole with salt. Then eat the egg and
go to bed. Your destined mate will appear in the night and offer you a
4. Eat a
thimbleful of meal and another of salt. Be very silent! Then walk
backwards to bed with your hands clasped behind your back. Take off your
clothing backwards and then get into bed. The apparition of your future
husband will come as before and give you a drink of water.
5. Place an egg
in front of the fire. If it seen to sweat blood, it's a sign that you will
succeed in winning the man you desire.
Return to our Month of
May page to
see what other events happen....--->
"Holiday Symbols, 2nd Edition"
Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. © 2000
Celebrates" by Hennig Cohen and Tristram Potter Coffin
Visible Ink Press, Detroit, Michigan © 1991
Midi Title -
"May Day Carol" - Traditional British Tune
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