Celebrating MAY DAY (May 1) around the Globe!

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May Day on May 1 is an ancient Northern Hemisphere spring festival and usually a public holiday; it is also a traditional spring holiday in many cultures.

Traditional May Day Celebrations

 
maypole-dancersMay Day is related to the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night. May Day falls exactly half a year from November 1, another cross-quarter day which is also associated with various northern European pagan and the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and it has traditionally been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations.

As Europe became Christianized, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and either changed into popular secular celebrations, as with May Day, or were merged with or replaced by new Christian holidays as with Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and All Saint’s Day. In the 20th and continuing into the 21st century, many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival again.

Origins

The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane. Many pagan celebrations were abandoned or Christianized during the process of conversion in Europe. A more secular version of May Day continues to be observed in Europe and America. In this form, May Day may be best known for its tradition of dancing the maypole dance and crowning of the Queen of the May.

Various Neopagan groups celebrate reconstructed (to varying degrees) versions of these customs on May 1.

The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of Spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer.

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In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is observed as Mary’s month, and in these circles May Day is usually a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this connection, in works of art, school skits, and so forth, Mary’s head will often be adorned with flowers in a May crowning.

Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of “May baskets”, small baskets of sweets and/or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbours’ doorsteps.

Europe

Great Britain

May Queen on village green, Melmerby, England
Traditional British May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a maypole. Much of this tradition derives from the pagan Anglo-Saxon customs held during “Þrimilci-mōnaþ” (the Old English name for the month of May meaning Month of Three Milkings) along with many Celtic traditions.

May blossom, the flower of the May tree

Dogwood BlossomMay Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. May Day is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility (of the soil, livestock, and people) and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings.

StJoseph6Since the reform of the Catholic Calendar, May 1 is the Feast of St Joseph the Worker, the patron saint of workers.

Seeding has been completed by this date and it was convenient to give farm labourers a day off.

Perhaps the most significant of the traditions is the maypole, around which traditional dancers circle with ribbons.

The May Day bank holiday, on the first Monday in May, was traditionally the only one to affect the state school calendar, although new arrangements in some areas to even out the length of school terms mean that the Good Friday and Easter Monday bank holidays, which vary from year to year, may also fall during term time. The May Day bank holiday was created in 1978. In February 2011, the UK Parliament was reported to be considering scrapping the bank holiday associated with May Day, replacing it with a bank holiday in October, possibly coinciding with Trafalgar Day (celebrated on October 21), to create a “United Kingdom Day“.

May Day was abolished and its celebration banned by puritan parliaments during the Interregnum, but reinstated with the restoration of Charles II in 1660.[5] May 1, 1707, was the day the Act of Union came into effect, joining England and Scotland to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.

Queen Guinevere’s Maying

Guinevere
For thus it chanced one morn when all the court,

Green-suited, but with plumes that mocked the may,
Had been, their wont, a-maying and returned,
That Modred still in green, all ear and eye,

Climbed to the high top of the garden-wall
To spy some secret scandal if he might

In Oxford, it is traditional for May Morning revellers to gather below the Great Tower of Magdalen College at 6:00 a.m. to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals as a conclusion to the previous night’s celebrations. It is then thought to be traditional for some people to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell.

However this has actually only been fashionable since the 1970s, possibly due to the presence of television cameras. In recent years, the bridge has been closed on 1 May to prevent people from jumping, as the water under the bridge is only 2 feet (61 cm) deep and jumping from the bridge has resulted in serious injury in the past.

There are still people who insist on climbing the barriers and leaping into the water, causing themselves injury.

may-girl-jump2_1627974iIn Durham, students of the University of Durham gather on Prebend’s Bridge to see the sunrise and enjoy festivities, folk music, dancing, madrigal singing and a barbecue breakfast. This is an emerging Durham tradition, with patchy observance since 2001.

Whitstable, Kent, hosts a good example of more traditional May Day festivities, where the Jack in the Green festival was revived in 1976 and continues to lead an annual procession of morris dancers through the town on the May Bank Holiday. A separate revival occurred in Hastings in 1983 and has become a major event in the town calendar. A traditional Sweeps Festival is performed over the May bank holiday in Rochester, Kent, where the Jack in the Green is woken at dawn on May 1 by Morris dancers.

Morris dancing on May Day in Oxford, England, in 2004.

At 7:15 p.m. on May 1 each year, the Kettle Bridge Clogs morris dancing side dance across Barming Bridge (otherwise known as the Kettle Bridge), which spans the River Medway near Maidstone, to mark the official start of their morris dancing season. Also known as Ashtoria Day in Northern parts of rural Cumbria.

A celebration of unity and female bonding.

Although not very well known, it is often cause for huge celebration.

The Maydayrun involves thousands of motorbikes taking a 55-mile (89 km) trip from London (Locksbottom) to the Hastings seafront, East Sussex. The event has been taking place for almost 30 years now and has grown in interest from around the country, both commercially and publicly. The event is not officially organised; the police only manage the traffic, and volunteers manage the parking.

Obby-Oss (Hobby Horse)Padstow in Cornwall holds its annual Obby-Oss (Hobby Horse) day of festivities. This is believed to be one of the oldest fertility rites in the UK; revellers dance with the Oss through the streets of the town and even through the private gardens of the citizens, accompanied by accordion players and followers dressed in white with red or blue sashes who sing the traditional ‘May Day‘ song.

The whole town is decorated with springtime greenery, and every year thousands of onlookers attend. Prior to the 19th-century distinctive May day celebrations were widespread throughout West Cornwall, and are being revived in St. Ives and Penzance.

Kingsand, Cawsand and Millbrook in Cornwall celebrate Flower Boat Ritual on the May Day bank holiday. A model of the ship The Black Prince is covered in flowers and is taken in procession from the Quay at Millbrook to the beach at Cawsand where it is cast adrift. The houses in the villages are decorated with flowers and people traditionally wear red and white clothes. There are further celebrations in Cawsand Square with Morris dancing and May pole dancing.

At the University of St Andrews, some of the students gather on the beach late on April 30 and run into the North Sea at sunrise on May Day, occasionally naked. This is accompanied by torch lit processions and much elated celebration.

Both Edinburgh and Glasgow organize Mayday festivals and rallies. In Edinburgh, the Beltane Fire Festival is held on the evening of May eve and into the early hours of May Day on the city’s Calton Hill. An older Edinburgh tradition has it that young women who climb Arthur’s Seat and wash their faces in the morning dew will have lifelong beauty.

Finland
Celebrations among the younger generations take place on May Day Eve, see Walpurgis Night in Finland, most prominent being the afternoon ‘crowning’ of statues in towns around the country with a student cap.

walpurgisnacht1May Day is known as Vappu, from the Swedish term. This is a public holiday that is the only carnival-style street festivity in the country. People young and old, particularly students, party outside, picnic and wear caps or other decorative clothing.

Some Finns make a special lemonade from lemons, brown sugar, and yeast called “sima”. It contains very little alcohol, so even children can drink it. You can also buy a similar product in all stores. Some Finns also make doughnuts and a crisp pastry fried in oil made from a similar, more liquid dough.

Balloons and other decorations like paper streamers are seen everywhere.

France
lily-of-the-valley-info0On May 1, 1561, King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. He 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.

The government permits individuals and workers’ organisations to sell them tax-free. Nowadays, people may present loved ones either with bunches of lily of the valley or dog rose flowers.

Germany
~ Maibaum in Munich, Germany.
~ Maibaum in Ellbach, Germany
In rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the wrapping of a Maibaum (maypole). Young people use this opportunity to party, while the day itself is used by many families to get some fresh air. Motto: “Tanz in den Mai!” (“Dance into May!“).

may_day_in_german_maypole_danceIn the Rhineland, May 1 is also celebrated by the delivery of a maypole, a tree covered in streamers to the house of a girl the night before. The tree is typically from a love interest, though a tree wrapped only in white streamers is a sign of dislike. Females usually place roses or rice in form of a heart at the house of their beloved one. It is common to stick the heart to a window or place it in front of the doormat.
On leap years, it is the responsibility of the females to place the maypole.

All the Action is usually done secretly and it is an individual’s choice whether to give a hint of their identity or stay anonymous.

May Day was not established as a public holiday until 1933. As Labour Day, many political parties and unions host activities related to work and employment.

Ireland
May Day has been celebrated in Ireland since pagan times as the feast of Bealtaine and in latter times 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. Old traditions such as bonfires are no longer widely observed, though the practice still persists in some places across the country. Limerick, Clare and many other people in other counties still keep on this tradition.

Romania
On May Day, the Romanians celebrate the arminden (or armindeni), the beginning of summer, symbolically tied with the protection of crops and farm animals. The name comes from Slavonic Jeremiinŭ dĭnĭ, meaning prophet Jeremiah’s day, but the celebration rites and habits of this day are apotropaic and pagan (possibly originating in the cult of the god Pan).

mugwortThe day is also called ziua pelinului (mugwort day) or ziua bețivilor (drunkards’ day) and it is celebrated to insure good wine in autumn and, for people and farm animals alike, good health and protection from the elements of nature (storms, hail, illness, pests). People would have parties in the nature with lăutari (fiddlers), for those who could afford it. There, it is customary to roast and eat lamb, also eat new mutton cheese and drink mugwort-flavoured wine or just red wine to refresh the blood and get protection from diseases. On the way back, the men wear lilac or mugwort flowers on their hats.

Other apotropaic rites include, in some areas of the country, people washing their faces with the morning dew (for good health) and adorning the gates for good luck and abundance with green branches or with birch saplings (for the houses with maiden girls). The entries to the animals’ shelters are also adorned with green branches. All branches are left in place until the wheat harvest when they are used in the fire which will bake the first bread from the new wheat.

On May Day eve, country women do not work in the field as well as in the house to avoid devastating storms and hail coming down on the village.

Arminden is also ziua boilor (oxen day) and thus the animals are not to be used for work, or else they could die or their owners could get ill.

It is said that the weather is always good on May Day to allow people to celebrate.

Sweden
valborg_The more traditional festivities have moved to the day before, Walpurgis Night (“Valborgsmässoafton“), known in some locales as simply “Last of April”.

The first of May is instead celebrated as International Workers’ Day.

 

 

North America

 

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Canada
May Day is celebrated in some parts of the Province of British Columbia.

Celebrations often take place not on May 1 but during the Victoria Day long weekend, later in the month and when the weather is likely to be better. The honour of having the longest continually observed May Day in the British Commonwealth – since 1870 – is claimed by the BC city of New Westminster.

United States
May Day festivities at National Park Seminary in Maryland, 1907.

May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. In some parts of the United States, May Baskets are made. These are small baskets usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone’s doorstep. The giver rings the bell and runs away. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver. If they catch the person, a kiss is exchanged.

may day nycDuring the Cold War, May Day celebrations fell out of favor due to its association with the USSR.

Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. vary greatly from region to region and many unite both the holidays “Green Root” (pagan) and “Red Root” (labor) traditions.

May 1 is also recognized in the U.S. as Law Day.

Hawaii

In Hawaii, May Day is also known as Lei Day, and is normally set aside as a day to celebrate island culture in general and native Hawaiian culture in particular. Invented by a poet and a local newspaper columnist Eric Kosciuszko in the 1920s, it has since been adopted by state and local government as well as the residents, and has taken on the sense of a general spring celebration. The first Lei Day was proposed in 1927 in Honolulu by poet and artist Don Blanding. Leonard “Red” and Ruth Hawk composed “May Day is Lei Day in Hawai’i,” the traditional holiday song. Originally it was a contemporary fox trot, later rearranged as the Hawaiian hula song performed today.

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