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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.

Many European 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.

Countries whose 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.


Symbols 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.

For example:  "Fair of Face = Pear bough on door.
"Glum Person" = Plum branches

Needless to say, this custom upset so many people that it was discontinued.


Jack 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.


May Baskets


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.


May Dolls


As mentioned 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.


May Pole


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%.


Queen 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 the fields. 

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.


Marriage Predictions

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.


Love 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 drink.

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....--->

Sources: "Holiday Symbols, 2nd Edition"
Sue Ellen Thompson
Omnigraphics, Inc. ©  2000

"America 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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