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. Dances, singing, and cake are usually part of the celebrations that the day includes. In the late 19th Century, May Day was also chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago. In those countries that celebrate International Workers’ Day, the day may also be referred to as “May Day” but it is a different celebration from the traditional May Day.
The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, held April 27 during the Roman Republic era, and with the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane, most commonly held on April 30. 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.
As Europe became Christianised, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and May Day changed into a popular secular celebration. A significant celebration of May Day occurs in Germany where it is one of several days on which St. Walburga, credited with bringing Christianity to Germany, is celebrated. The secular versions of May Day, observed in Europe and America, may be best known for their traditions of dancing around the maypole and crowning the Queen of May. Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of “May baskets,” small baskets of sweets or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbors’ doorsteps.
Since the 18th Century, many Roman Catholics have observed May — and May Day — with various May devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary In works of art, school skits, and so forth, Mary’s head will often be adorned with flowers in a May crowning. May 1 is also one of two feast days of the Catholic patron saint of workers St Joseph the Worker, a carpenter, husband to Mother Mary, and surrogate father of Jesus.Replacing another feast to St. Joseph, this date was chosen by the Pope Pius XII in 1955 to create as a counterpoint to the Communist International Workers Day celebrations on May Day.Beginning in the late 20th century, many neopagans began reconstructing traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival. Traditional English 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.
the traditional flower associated with May Day is the May blossom, the flower of the May tree or common hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna. May Day has also been a day of festivities throughout the centuries and is most associated with celebrating springtime fertility (of the soil, livestock, and people) and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. Since 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 Good Friday (a common law holiday) and Easter Monday (a bank holiday), which vary from year to year, may also fall during term time. The Spring Bank Holiday on the first Monday in May was created in 1978; May Day itself – May 1 – is not a public holiday in England (unless it falls on a Monday). 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. May 1, 1707, was the day the Act of Union came into effect, joining England and Scotland to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. 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. In 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.
Kingsbury Episcopi, Somerset, has seen its yearly May Day Festival celebrations on the May bank holiday Monday burgeon in popularity in the recent years. Since it was reinstated 21 years ago it has grown in size, and on May 5, 2014 thousands of revellers were attracted from all over the South West to enjoy the festivities, with BBC Somerset covering the celebrations. These include traditional maypole dancing and morris dancing, as well as a number of excellent contemporary music acts; artists such as Mad Dog Mcrea and the Three Daft Monkeys have played in previous years. In 2014, the Green Man Stage was graced with four acts, including traditional Somerset folk singer Mary Bateman, upbeat folk act The Roving Crows, solo acoustic artist Gaz Brookfield and the Lounge Lizards.
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.
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.
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 torchlit 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.
International Workers’ Day or Labour Day is held on May 1 in Great Britain to celebrate labourers and the working classes. It is promoted by the international labour movement, anarchists, socialists, and communists, it also coincides with the Celtic spring festival Beltane. The date was chosen to commemorate the Haymarket affair, which occurred in Chicago on 4 May 1886 when the police killed four demonstrators while trying to disperse a public assembly during a general strike for the eight-hour working day. International Workers Day was also campaigned for by other trade unionists as a day to celebrate labor and was first proposed In 1882 by Matthew Maguire, a machinist, who proposed a Labor Day holiday while serving as secretary of the Central Labor Union (CLU)) of New York.Peter J. McGuire of the American Federation of Labor also proposed a day in May 1882, after witnessing the annual labour festival held in Toronto, Canada. Thus on September 1887, Oregon was among thirty US States to celebrate Labor Day an official public holiday.
Elsewhere May 1 was chosen to be International Workers’ Day After Raymond Lavigne proposed international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago protests at a meeting held by Second international in Paris. Subsequently May Day was formally recognized as an annual event at the International’s second congress in 1891. In 1904, the International Socialist Conference called on “all Social Democratic Party organizations and trade unions to legally establish an eight hour working day. Since thenvMay Day has been a focal point for demonstrations by various socialist, communist and anarchist groups. May Day has been an important official holiday in countries such as the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Cuba and the former Soviet Union. May Day celebrations typically feature elaborate popular and military parades in these countries. In 1955, the Catholic Church dedicated 1 May to “Saint Joseph The patron saint of workers and craftsmen (among others).
During the Cold War, May Day became the occasional for large military parades in Red Square by the Soviet Union and attended by the top leaders of the Kremlin, especially the Politburo, atop Lenin’s Tomb. It became an enduring symbol of that period. Haymarket affair in Chicago. The police were trying to disperse a public assembly during a general strike for the eight-hour workday, when an unidentified person threw a bomb at the police. The police responded by firing on the workers, killing four demonstrators. In 1889, a meeting in Paris was held by the first congress of the Second International, following a proposal by Raymond Lavigne which called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago protests. In 1955, the Catholic Church dedicated 1 May to “Saint Joseph” the patron saint of workers and craftsmen
In London there is a May Day March and rally, organised by the London May Day Committee (South East Region Trades Councils), during which people gather together in Clerkenwell Green near the Marx Memorial Library before marching to Trafalgar Square for a rally with speeches from representatives of local, national and international trades unions and campaigning organisations. This event always takes place on May 1 with the intention to reinstate May 1, regardless of what day it falls on, as a national holiday. More images and information of London’s May Day rally is covered by the “Working Class Heroes” project.
Beltane or Beltain is the Gaelic May Day festival. Most commonly it is held on 1 May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Irish it is Bealtaine in Scottish Gaelic Bealltainn and in Manx Gaelic Boaltinn or Boaldyn. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh—and is similar to the Welsh Calan Mai.
Beltane is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology. It marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire, or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast, and some of the food and drink would be offered to the aos sí. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush; a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe.
Beltane celebrations had largely died-out by the mid-20th century, although some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event. Since the latter 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Beltane, or something based on it, as a religious holiday. Neopagans in the Southern Hemisphere often celebrate Beltane at the other end of the year (~1 November).