The origins and traditions of May Day: Why and how do we celebrate it?

Tomorrow is May 1 and with this comes May Day, an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival and a traditional spring holiday in many cultures around the globe.
Tomorrow is May 1 and with this comes May Day, an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival and a traditional spring holiday in many cultures around the globe.
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Tomorrow is May 1 and with this comes ‘May Day’, an ancient northern hemisphere spring festival and a traditional spring holiday in many cultures around the globe.

The perception of May Day varies as in the late 19th century, May Day was chosen as the date for International Workers' Day by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International, in order to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago.

However, although International Workers' Day may also be referred to as ‘May Day’, it is a different celebration from the traditional May Day which dates back to thousands of years ago.

The origins of May Day

The earliest May Day celebrations appeared with the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. During the Roman Republic era, this was held on April 27 and with the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane, which is most commonly held on April 30.

The day was originally a traditional summer holiday in many European pagan cultures, as February 1 used to mark the first day of spring, therefore May 1 celebrated the first day of summer, thus the summer solstice in June 25 was Midsummer.

When Europe became Christianised, May Day changed into a popular secular celebration and the secular versions observed both in Europe and North America incorporated the traditional dancing around the maypole and crowning the Queen of May.

The giving of ‘May baskets’, small baskets of sweets or flowers which were usually left anonymously on neighbours' doorsteps, were also a traditional part of May Day, but have now faded in popularity since the late 20th century.

Although the secularisation of May Day was due to the pagan holidays losing their religious character, during the late 20th century many neopagans began reconstructing traditions and began again celebrating May Day as a religious pagan festival.

May Day in the UK

May Day traditions in the UK also involve crowning a May Queen and dancing around a maypole, where traditional dancers circle around with brightly coloured ribbons.

Historically, Morris dancing has also been linked to May Day celebrations.

May Day has been a traditional day of festivities for many centuries, usually in small towns and villages, with people celebrating springtime fertility of the soil, livestock, and people.

This used to, and may still, incorporate with village fetes and community gatherings, and as seeding is usually completed by this date it was convenient timing in order to give farm labourers a day off.

The spring bank holiday on the first Monday in May was created in 1978, but May Day itself (May 1) is not a public holiday in England unless it falls on a Monday.

It was reported in February 2011 that the UK Parliament were considering scrapping the bank holiday associated with May Day in favour of replacing it with a bank holiday in October, possibly in order to coincide with Trafalgar Day, hence creating a ‘United Kingdom Day”.

May Day around the world

May Day is also celebrated around the globe, with each country having different reasons for and ways of celebrating the first day in the month of May.

In Finland, Walpurgis night (Vappu) ("Vappen") is the celebration of May Day and is one of the four biggest holidays, along with Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Midsummer (Juhannus - Midsommar).

In Estonia May Day or "Spring Day" (Kevadpüha) is a national holiday which celebrates the arrival of spring, whereas in France On May 1, 1561, King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm on May 1 1561 and decided to offer a lily of the valley each year to the ladies of the court. At the beginning of the 20th century, it became custom to give a sprig of lily of the valley, a symbol of springtime, on May 1.

Meanwhile, May Day in Ireland has been celebrated since pagan times as the feast of Beltane before then being celebrated as Mary's day.

Traditionally, bonfires were lit to mark the coming of summer and to banish the long nights of winter. Officially Irish May Day holiday is the first Monday in May.

In Italy May Day is called ‘Calendimaggio’ or ‘cantar maggio’, where a seasonal feast is traditionally held in order to celebrate the arrival of spring.

The event takes its name from the Latin ‘calenda maia’, which relates to the period in which it takes place, this being the beginning of May. This tradition is still alive today in many regions of Italy and symbolises and celebrates the return to life and rebirth.