The History of May Day

Written by
Isabella Williams

Ever wondered why we dance around a pole on the first day of May? Well, the day has astronomical significance, falling exactly between the Spring equinox and the Summer Solstice, marking it as the start of summer.

Medieval May Pole dancing

Celtic Origins of May Day

The celebration of this day dates back to pagan times. The Celtic tradition of Beltane celebrated the return of the sun from its entrapment. In 900 AD people in parts of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man would celebrate the sun’s inaugurating power by marching around the fire with their livestock and would even leap over the flames, believing that they would bless and protect the livestock.

Germanic Origins of May Day

The German celebration of Walpurgis Night or “Witches night” was believed to be the night witches would meet on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, a range of wooded hills in central Germany between the rivers Weser and Elbe, and await the arrival of Spring on the last day of April. Bonfires were burned to ward them off.

Walpurgis Night or “Witches night”

Ancient Origins of May Day

Influence of these Spring/ Summer celebrations also came from the Roman tradition of Floralia, the Festival of Flora. This five-day celebration was to honour one of the most ancient goddesses, Flora. As the goddess of flowers, vegetation and fertility she was celebrated with theatrical performances, banquets, competitive games and sacrifices.

The Triumph of Flora by Tiepolo

The Triumph of Flora by Tiepolo (ca. 1743), a scene based on Ovid's description of the Floralia.

Origins of the May Pole

Although we don’t know exactly where the May Pole actually originated from, the first recorded evidence of a May Pole comes from the Welsh poet Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd in the mid-14th century, in which he wrote about how the people of Llanidloes used a tall Birch pole and placed in the centre of the small Welsh village.

References to the May Pole increased during the years 1350-1400 across Southern England, Wales and the Scottish Lowlands, in both towns and the country-side. The May Pole was part of the celebrations of summer and the fertility of the land.

May Day celebrations around a may pole

May Day and Puritanism

Due to its Pagan origins, the Puritans of the Interregnum period were against the celebration of May Day. Oliver Cromwell banned it following the end of the Civil War in 1645. He described it as a ‘heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness’. May Day celebrations did not return until the restoration of Charles II, who erected a 40-meter-high maypole in London’s Strand.

The May Queen and Jack-in-the-Green

There are references to a May Queen of “Summer Queen” from the Middle Ages and in the 1500s. She represented purity and the fertility of Spring. Crowning a May Queen was popularised by Tennyson’s poem “The May Queen” in the 19th century.

A May Queen

As part of May Day celebrations, you might spot in the procession a man dressed in green. He is Jack-in-the-Green, an ancient relic from the days when the population worshipped trees. Although, the first recorded occurrence comes from the 17th century, where milkmaids would dance in the May Day parade with garlands on their pails.

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References:

Wikipedia - May Day

Encyclopedia Britannica - May Day

New Historian - The history of May Day

Historic UK - May Day Celebrations

Ancient Origins - May Day

New World Encyclopedia - May Day

Reading University Blog - Crowing the May Queen Origins

Wikipedia - May Queen

BBC News - May Day history and folklore

Wikipedia - Jack-in-the-green

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