What is the history behind May Day and why do we celebrate it?

Historian Helen Carr explores the history of May Day, which has Roman origins and was once a pagan celebration. She reveals how, through history, this celebration of spring has been deeply connected to the earth’s enduring cycle of birth, life and death…

The Floralia

What is May Day and why is it celebrated?

May Day is the first day of May, traditionally a celebration (or festival) of spring and the resurrection of nature after the winter months. It is normally associated with flowers, dancing and Maypoles, with celebrations sometimes including the crowning of a ‘May King’, or ‘Queen’.

Advertisement

In the UK, May Day is sometimes associated with the bank holiday weekend in the same month – the latter having been formalised as a national holiday in 1978 under a Labour government. This was initiated by Michael Foot, the then-secretary of state for employment, to coincide with International Labour Day. However, the roots of May Day go back thousands of years.

What are the origins of May Day?

May Day probably has Roman origins, emerging from the festival Floralia, which was a celebration of fertility and nature that took place around early May and was dedicated to the goddess Flora. However, it is also believed that May Day has roots in the Celtic festival Beltane – a day that marks the start of summer and considered the best time for animals to be put out to pasture. The Venerable Bede (673 AD–735 AD), one of the greatest scholars of the Anglo-Saxon period, notes that the month of May was the time where cattle were milked three times per day and taken to graze on the land.

Beltane Fire Festival
A Beltane Fire Society performer celebrates at the Beltane Fire Festival on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland, April 2014. (Photo by Roberto Ricciuti/Getty Images)

On a ceremonial level, this seasonal transition was marked by fire, which symbolised the death of winter and the birth of new life (or the transition of winter to spring and to summer).

Is May Day a pagan holiday?

The celebration of May Day is deeply connected to the earth’s enduring cycle of birth, life and death, and the festival typically holds pagan values – focusing on the power and energy of the natural world. Beltane was also a Druid ritual (Druids were pagans) and there were sacrifices by fire made from a pyre of bones, symbolising the birth of the new season. These sacrifices were usually puppets – made of straw or wood from the forest – but were known as the ‘May King’.

Although May Day was not vehemently opposed by the Christian Church, it faced opposition. For example, in 1240 the bishop of Lincoln was furious that some of his priests enjoyed May Day celebrations, as they were steeped in the pagan tradition the Christian church sought to override. It subsequently developed into a secular celebration – centred on labour, farming and the cycle of the seasons – rather than a Christian one.

Allegedly, in 1515, Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, took her ladies out in the early morning to bathe in the May dew for its healing benefits

How was May Day traditionally celebrated?

Much like the Roman festival Floralia, May Day was celebrated with flora (particularly flowers and other vegetation). John Lydgate’s 15th-century poem Mumming at Bishopwood describes “mighty Flourra, goddes of fresshe floures”, and in The Knight’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer mentions woodbine and hawthorn as decorations.

On May Day, people would traditionally collect flowers, blossom and branches to decorate their homes, and as they gathered their bouquets they would literally ‘sing in the May’. Women and girls would rise early and wash their faces in the fresh May morning dew, for it was believed to make them radiant, reduce blemishes and attract their future spouse. Allegedly, in 1515, Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, took her ladies out in the early morning to bathe in the May dew for its healing benefits.

The most iconic expression of May Day celebrations is the May Pole, the centre of the celebrations and the dancing. Originally, this was a large tree in the forest that was decorated in situ, but later it was cut down and brought to the village (or community) and decorated with flowers, wreaths, handkerchiefs and ribbons. The dance around it was an expression of the joy of new life.

Maypole dance
Children in Somerset rehearsing a maypole dance, 27 May 1953. (Photo by Express/Express/Getty Images)

How did the tradition of May Day progress?

During the interregnum period from 1649, May Day was banned – considered to be another frivolous and blasphemous celebration. However, like much of the frivolity and joy that was stamped out by the Puritans, it was reinstated during the Restoration period under Charles II. May Day continued to be a civic celebration and developed further as a festival for labourers and farmers such as milk maids. This is apparent in a ballad from 1630 that contains a final verse “In honour o’ th’ milking paile”. This connection to milk maids aligns with the May Day custom described by the Venerable Bede of cows being more regularly milked come May.

The May Pole dance was popular in Victorian society and in the 19th century there was a revival of the adornment and dancing around the Maypole by girls. Today, schools and villages still sometimes celebrate May Day and it endures most commonly as a communal custom; an expression of togetherness, song and dance.

There are some places, however, in Devon, Cornwall and Scotland, that continue the ancient custom of Beltane – on 1 May, fires are still burnt to cleanse the old and welcome summer and the hope of new life.

Advertisement

Helen Carr is a medieval historian, television producer and writer. Helen runs her own podcast, Hidden Histories, and is currently in the process of writing her debut factual history, a biography on John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, to be published by Oneworld.