May Day is celebrated across the Northern Hemisphere as a Spring time festival and is more often than not a public holiday. Interestingly the original May Day has a long history going back to Roman times though in many places this is now celebrated alongside or has even been usurped by the International Workers Day.
A number of European cultures marked the entry to springtime. The Romans celebrated Floralia on April 27th which was for the Goddess of Flowers whilst elsewhere across the contininent Germanic people which celebrated Walpurgis Night on April 30th and in the British Isles there was Beltane on 1st May which roughly marked the midway point between the Spring Equinox and Mid-Summer.
Originally May Day was an entirely pagan festival though through the centuries it began to be taken over by a Christian character and later in some places, made entirely illegal as was the case for some years in Great Britain when the Puritans banned it for its pagan origins.
May Day in Britain today is perhaps the most traditional holiday in the calendar and one of the very few which we still observe in anyway compared to several more folksy days across continental Europe. Most villages and even towns and cities mark May Day. Morris Dancing used to be very popular and is a type of English country folk dancing but sadly the tradition is dying out due to the lack of younger men wanting to take up the tradition.
Many villages also have May Queens in which a young lady or girl either walks or rides at the head of the parade wearing a beautiful white gown to symbolise purity as well as perhaps a tiara though also has to deal with being crowned by flowers too as she gets the celebrations under way.
In fact as I write this blog I can hear May Day festivities and folk music coming across the field and it instantly would take me back to a Robin Hood type era, if only I had ever been there in the first place.
Often May Day celebrations centre around the Maypole. The first recorded use of Maypoles in Britain was around 1350AD though it is likely that they were around much earlier than that. There has been much speculation that the tall Maypoles, some recorded being nearly 100feet (30 metres) tall might hark back to a pagan worship of trees but sadly any such original meanings have long since been lost to the ravages of time. Some places saw trees as a sign of fertility whilst other areas such as Britain were more likely to be celebrating the rebirth of the summer season after the long winter, something which considering it snowed several times this week even in the London area means it is something I very much relate with!
These days people usually dance around maypoles, often carrying brightly decorared ribbons. Dancing and music is the theme of the day and enjoying spring and the prospect of a long summer. In some areas of course, most unusual celebrations take place including the increasingly revived character of Jack In The Green whilst in Padstgow in Cornwall, people chase a Hobby Horse through the streets.
Many of the British traditions were carried overseas with only minor tweaks to Canada and the United States and as my Airbnb guest confirmed this morning, even to Hong Kong! In Scandinavia however the Maypole celebrations are reserved for Midsummers Day.
Many if not most countries celebrate Labour Day as part of the movement of International Workers though the United States and Canada have their Workers holiday in September. In the U.K. however we don’t have any Labour Day whatsoever, despite the U.K. seeing the Communist Manifesto being drawn up in Manchester and the very fist Trade Unions much further back in the Industrial Revolution. Capitalism or old fashioned aristocracy is what rules here and even May Day is not a bank holiday here, instead we have the first Monday of May as a holiday whether that be the 1st May or 7th May or any day in between.
International Workers Day is also celebrated on 1st May, the day was no doubt convenient as it was already a holiday for many people across the world though also heavily indebted to the Haymarket Affair in Chicago on 4th May 1886. There was a movement to move Labor Day in the USA to 1st May but this was crushed in the 1920’s and seen as being Communist and not at all American.
The May Day Parade was traditionally a big even in Moscow and which has re-surfaced in recent years for the first time since Communism, however it is largely overshadowed by the highly militarised Victory Parade that takes place a few days later.