May Day Celebrations

THE HISTORY OF MAY DAY

The old Celtic celebration of May Day was called Beltane, (or Beltaine in its most popular Anglicized form) the Celtic god of light or the sun (Bel, Beli or Belinus). For the Celts, Beltane was a festival where fires were set to mark the beginning of summer: "They rolled wheels of fire down hillsides, lit bonfires, and drove their cattle through the flames in a ceremony of pu­rifi­cati­on".

Some people believe that the celebrations on May Day began with Beltane and the tree worship of the Druids. Others believe they go back to the spring festivals of ancient Egypt and India. However, May Day as it is celebrated today is more of a European import, believe it or not, from Italy. The people of ancient Rome honored Flora, the goddess of flowers and springtime, with a festival called Florialia. The goddess was represented by a small statue wreathed in garlands. A procession of singers and dancers carried the statue past a sacred blossom-decked tree. Later, festivals of this kind spread to other lands conquered by the Romans, and of course this included Britain.

As Europe became Christi­ani­zed, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and either morphed into popular secular ce­leb­ra­ti­ons, as with May Day, or were given new Christian in­ter­pre­tati­ons while retaining many traditional pagan features, as with Christmas, Easter, and All Saint's Day. Beginning in the 20th century, many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival once more.

These festivals reached their height in England during the Middle Ages. On the first day of May, English villagers awoke at daybreak to roam the countryside gathering blossoming flowers and branches. A towering maypole was set up on the village green. This pole, usually made of the trunk of a tall birch tree, was decorated with bright field flowers. The villagers then danced and sang around the maypole, accompanied by a piper. Usually the Morris dance was performed by dancers wearing bells on their colourful costumes. Often the fairest maiden of the village was chosen queen of the May. Sometimes a May king was also chosen. These two led the village dancers and ruled over the festivities. In Elizabethan times, the king and queen were called Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

THE MAYPOLE

One popular Mayday custom was the making of a maypole. Early in the day the villagers would go to the nearest woodland and cut down a young tree. The tree (usually a tall birch tree) would be stripped of its branches except at the top (where the leaves symbolized new life) and dragged or carried to an open space in the town square or village green. It was then decorated with garlands of flowers and ribbons. Historians believe the cutting of the maypole was the villager's way of establishing their right to cut wood freely from the forest.

Traditi­onal­ly the dancing was done by women but it has now become a popular children's activity. Each child holds one of the coloured ribbons and circles the maypole with a hopping, skipping step. Some of the children dance in one direction while others dance the opposite way around the pole, changing their direction at carefully chosen moments. As they dance, the children pass each other until the ribbons are plaited together and wrapped tightly around the Maypole. When the circle is as small as it can be, the dance is reversed and the ribbons unwind until the dancers come back to their starting places.

Maypoles were usually set up for the day in small towns and villages as a centre point for the days celeb­ra­ti­ons, but in London and the larger towns they were erected permanently. The most famous Maypole in England was erected on the first May Day of Charles II reign in 1661. An enormous pole, 40 metres high, was floated up the Thames and erected in the Strand where it remained for almost 50 years. One of the oldest maypoles still in existence is at Hemswell in Lincolnshire where the ladder to the belfry in Castle Bytham Church bears this message "This ware the May Poul 1660".