The origins of May Day
The earliest May Day celebrations are generally acknowledged to have taken place in the pre-Christian era, with the festival of Flora (Roman Goddess of flowers), the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries, and the celebration of Beltane in Gaelic countries. Most of these were a celebration of the coming of summer, and of the fertility that accompanied the season.
More recently – since the 19th century to be more precise – May Day has also become synonymous with the labour movement, and is often viewed as a day to recognise the economic and social achievements of workers. Labour Day (or International Workers’ Day as it’s also known) has its origins in the ‘eight-hour day movement’, which advocated eight hours for work, eight hours for recreation, and eight hours for rest.
The revolutionary nature of Labour Day’s history has lead to its adoption by many organisations and communities across the world as a day for political protest or rallies, which in turn was responsible for the American government’s decision to rename it ‘Loyalty Day’.
May Day (Loyalty Day) celebrations in the USA
Loyalty Day was first observed in 1921 as “Americanisation Day” to counterbalance Labour Day on 1st May, which was celebrated in other parts of the world and perceived as communist. On May 1, 1930, about 10,000 Veterans of Foreign War members staged a rally at New York’s Union Square to promote patriotism. Through a resolution adopted in 1949, May 1 evolved into Loyalty Day, when Americans are supposed to show their loyalty to, and love of, their country with appropriate ceremonies in schools and other public places.
May Day Celebrations in Scotland and Ireland
May Day celebrations in these two countries generally relate to Beltane – a Celtic calendar feast to mark the start of summer. Bonfires were common features of Beltane celebrations and still remain so today. Related rituals included driving cattle between two fires, and burning witches in effigy. One of the biggest and most-well known celebrations today is the fire festival in Edinburgh, when a huge bonfire is lit on Carlton Hill.
May Day Celebrations in Germany
In Germany, particularly in the more rural areas, people celebrate what is known as ‘Walpurgisnacht’ on 1st May. Walpurgisnacht stems from the legend of the abbess of a monastery of Heidenheim, who helped St. Boniface bring Christianity to 8th Century Germany. As her remains have been moved on multiple occasions, several days have been designated in her honor, one of which is the first of May. This date coincided with a pre-existing pagan festival, which, in Germany, included activities intended to protect against witchcraft. This brought about the development of a hybrid legend, in which witches were said to meet the Devil on the eve of May 1, on the Brocken peak. The night of April 30th became known as “Walpurgisnacht”. If you visit Germany at this time of year, you will find pagan celebrations that include bonfires and lots of partying – all night long in most cases!
May Day celebrations in the UK
In medieval England, people would celebrate the start of spring by going out into the countryside —”going a-maying”— to collect greenery and flowers. Another English tradition was dancing around the maypole. Some towns had permanent maypoles, whilst others put up a new one each May. Every year the pole would be decorated with greenery and ribbons, colourfully painted, and served as a focus point of the celebrations.
These days, many of these traditions have been lost, although if you’re lucky you may find the odd Maypole in rural villages with communities keen to honour the tradition! One rite that has steadfastly remained, though, takes place in Oxford when the Magdalen choir sing from Magdalen Chapel Tower to celebrate the dawn of May Day. This tradition dates back to at least the 17th century. During the celebrations, people are also known to jump off the Magdalen Bridge in full evening dress – an activity that, although very traditional, is attracting increased safety concerns! As a result, the festivities may not remain the same for much longer, so a visit to Oxford on May Day this year would give you a glimpse of what could soon be an extinct British tradition…