May Day: an ancient festival with a pagan twist

Apr 30, 2014

Ancient Egyptians held the first May Day celebrations, but most British customs have Celtic roots

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

DESPITE Christian attempts to appropriate May Day celebrations, the pagan roots of the festival remain unusually close to the surface.

Throughout Europe, 1 May has been marked with a variety of customs that celebrate springtime fertility and the arrival of warmer weather. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, many of these customs derive from ancient agricultural practices.

Ancient origins The earliest spring festival on record, now called Sham El-Nesssim, was held in ancient Egypt in the hope that it would ensure women had healthy babies in the coming year. In Greek and Roman culture, the emphasis switched from human fertility to the fertility of the land, and the start of May was celebrated for the arrival of longer days and the start of the farming season.  

The Romans marked the occasion with the Floralia, or Festival of Flora, a five-day ceremony to honour the Roman goddess of flowers. People would dance, gather flowers and, according to some sources, set aside their white togas in favour of brighter wares. It was also a time for Ludi Florales: public games, theatre, and merrymaking. The festival was eventually declared a Roman holiday by Julius Caesar and revellers are said to have worn garlands of fresh flowers while scattering seeds to promote agricultural bounty.

Later developments In the British Isles, most May Day traditions derive from Anglo-Saxon and Celtic traditions, the most influential of which is the Gaelic festival of Beltane – which means “the return of the sun”. Celts believed the sun was held prisoner during winter months only to be released each spring to rule the summer sky, and they celebrated this mythic release with a huge feast to mark the occasion.

Great fires were lit and people and animals walked (or danced) between the flames in a ceremony which was believed to promote purification and fertility. Some people believe that maypole dancing derives from this pagan ceremony.   

Many pagan festivals lost their character in the Middle Ages as they were suppressed or appropriated by Christianity, and Beltane went the same way. In Catholic Britain, the month of May became increasingly associated with the virgin Mary, and May Day itself became synonymous with a May Crowning, during which effigies of the virgin Mary were crowned with flowers. More secular versions of the May crowning ceremony continue today and the coronation of a May Queen remains commonplace in many parts of Europe and America.

Surviving customs

The Maypole DanceMaypole dancing continues to be one of the most popular May Day customs in the UK, despite having originated in southern Europe. Participants dance around a wooden Maypole, holding colourful ribbons that become decoratively intertwined. The dancers then change direction and repeat the steps in reverse, causing the ribbons to unwind. This is said to symbolize the lengthening of the days as summer begins. The tallest maypole on record in the UK was 143ft high. Erected in London in 1661, it was later used by Isaac Newton to support Huygens’s reflecting telescope following its removal from the capital in 1717.

Morris Dancing – Named after 13th century Moresco dancers, British Morris dancers are a stalwart of May Day celebrations. The stomping of feet and clashing of sticks is said to represent the battle between good and evil, and the triumph of summer over winter.

Modern interpretations – Since the reform of the Catholic calendar May Day has also been known as the Feast of St Joseph, the patron saint of workers. International Workers’ Day coincides with the ancient festival, and the association with workers and the labour movement has become increasingly pronounced in recent years. In many countries the terms May Day and Labour Day are now used interchangeably.

Public holiday  Although May Day itself is not a bank holiday, the first Monday in May was established as a holiday in 1978. It was nearly scrapped in 2011, when Parliament considered introducing a replacement that would fall in October. 

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