May Day is a pagan festival to mark the return of spring in ancient Celtic/Gaelic traditions. Quarter day festivals mark the change of seasons, each with special rituals and symbols (Imbolic, Beltane, Lagnnasadh, Samhuinn). May first was the first day of summer (hence the solstice June 21st is Midsummer), and many bonfires were lit to mark a time of purification and transition. The community bonfire also supplied the flame to renew each home hearth with hope of good harvest, health and to bring good luck. It was the second most important festival of the Druids.
Various traditional May Day celebrations included the gathering of wildflowers and green branches, the weaving of floral garlands, Morris dancers (who wake Jack in the Green), crowning the queen of May, and decorating the Maypole, around which people danced. This holiday with its roots in the fertility celebrations of pre-Christian Europe is associated with much raucous activity. May Day, is a day on which you should wash your face with morning dew at sunrise to keep yourself looking young and beautiful. You should also gather wildflowers and green branches, make floral garlands and bouquets with ribbons to decorate your home and village. May baskets were a particular charm, small bouquets that were left anonymously on a doorstep (if you caught the person, you got a kiss). Lily of the valley and violets were often used; the lily of the valley is also commonly called May flower and is a lucky charm.
At Oxford University, otherwise intelligent young scholars jump off the Magdalen Bridge into a section of the Cherwell River that is two feet deep, even though the bridge is closed off as a precautionary measure. At St. Andrews in Scotland, students gather on the beach the night before May Day, build bonfires, and then at sunrise they run (occasionally naked) into the frigid North Sea. In Edinburgh Scotland, it is customary to climb Arthur’s Seat to greet the sunrise (and the all important dew), with dancing Druids and song. Since the late 1980s, there has been a Beltane Society which revived and developed Beltane as a Community Arts Project with street performances, including bonfires, drumming and revelry on Calton hill. Over 15,000 people annually attend. In the United States, the Puritans frowned on this celebration, but many customs are still followed on the east coast. In Hawaii, there’s hula dancing to the “May Day is Lei Day” song. In Minneapolis, there’s the May Day Parade that marches south down Bloomington Avenue. It’s organized by the In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, now in its 37th year and attracting about 35,000 people.
Europe christianised many pagan holidays, but not this one. To celebrate this popular holiday, workers stayed home against their employers’ wishes. It became known as a people’s holiday. A conference of world Socialist parties held in Paris voted May 1, 1890, as a day of demonstrations in favor of the eight-hour day. May first is also the Feast of St Philip and St James, so they became the patron saints of workers. May Day is also called Labor Day for much of the world, a day to commemorate the economic and social improvements of workers. In the US, President Cleveland moved Labor Day to September to disassociate it with the radical left as it evolved from the 1886 Haymarket Square riots. In 1958, U.S. Congress under Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 “Loyalty Day” and also “Law Day” – two holidays that have not caught on. May Day is still a prominent holiday in communist countries like Cuba and the People’s Republic of China.
NB the international distress signal code word “Mayday” has nothing to do with Beltane. It’s derived from the French m’aider, meaning, come help me.