Friday, May 1, 2015

Shall We Go A-Maying? Traditions of May Day

by Barbara Bettis

Queen Guinevere's Maying by John Collier
May Day. Gathering and bestowing of flowers, dancing around May Poles. What a delightful and innocent way to welcome Summer.                         
Or so we might think in the 21st Century. In fact, like so many of our holiday traditions, May Day has its origins in ancient times and through several cultures. As so many of those current holidays, the Church also has a religious observance slotted for that day, as well.
The feast of Sts. Phillip and James is held on May 1, honoring the dedication of a church now known at the Church of the Twelve Apostles, located in Rome. It originally was dedicated to Phillip and James.
Also from Rome—at least, from early Romans—comes the festival of Floralia, celebrating Flora goddess of flowers.
May 1 falls on an important date in other early non-Christian cultures. It coincides with the Gaelic Beltane festivities, marking the return of Summer. While Spring was observed earlier, Summer was especially important, because the first crops were beginning to peek above the ground and the fertility was to be celebrated. Green was a color especially tied to the day, most evident in the later Middle Ages.
Beltane began the evening of April 30 and continued the following day. Huge bonfires were lit to much rejoicing, celebrating fertility.
"Mayflowers" Hawthorne blossoms
Early in the morning, young men and women would go into the fields and forests to pick flowers and greenery. The phrase “gone-a-Maying” stems from that (Cosman.) The day of feasting often was capped by entertainment such as that from Morris Dancers, a group of men who would perform for the villagers.
Often, villages would erect May Poles. The original purpose of the May Pole isn’t clear, but it has been suggested they may have been phallic symbols to represent fertility. Young girls danced around the poles in early such festivities. Eventually the tradition evolved, and the poles were decorated with flowers and ribbons. Some sources say any of the villagers could dance around them, although the activity was often the purview of the young. Some such poles were so tall, they had to be embedded in the earth. They were left standing year-round.
Just in case we think all this might only be myth, the London church St. Andrew Undershaft reportedly took its name from the May Pole that was erected across from it each year. (The May Pole there met its end at the hands of a mob in 1547, who declared it a “pagan idol.”)

Sweet surprise for neighbors
Much later in the 20th Century, the May Pole our elementary class danced around weaving crepe paper streamers into colorful patterns wasn’t pagan, however. That dance had taken on the tradition of a folk activity and was treated as fun and games.
In addition, I recall my friends and I making May baskets to hang on doorknobs on May Day. It was a sweet activity and I hate to see it—or the May Pole— slip into oblivion.
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Medieval Holidays and Festivals New York: Scribners, 1981


  1. Yes, I remember May Day as well, particularly as a child. "May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii" was the song we sang, and although I don't remember an actual maypole, I do remember that we danced ring dances and sang songs--many of them Hawaiian! And had leis. Everyone had a lei--not the grand ones like the ones you buy at the airport but the plain ordinary plumeria or vanda orchid ones people strung themselves at home. Wonder if it still goes on.

  2. How wonderful. The tradition of flowers certainly is common to Hawaii. I'd love the "plain ordinary" orchid for at home :)

  3. Wow, Barbara, great information. The only May Day celebration I've ever seen was at my son's elementary school. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Hi Vicki. Glad to hear it's still in evidence somewhere! thanks for stopping my

  5. I loved this glimpse into our past. Thanks Barbara

  6. There is a good article of medieval courtly love on this website that you might want to check out

    Thanks for the info.