Thankfully, there are still a few locales where children are encouraged to create May Baskets filled with simple treats and small toys to place on the doorsteps of their friends’ houses. This small remnant is almost the only part of the once important holiday remaining. It is my opinion that May Day should be celebrated with just as much fanfare as Halloween.
Way back in pre-Roman times, such peoples as the Druids thought of May Day as one of the most important days of the year. The elders said that Beltane, the Druid version of May Day, started the portion of the year that ended on Samhain on November 1st. In other words Beltane and Samhain could be thought of as “book ends” to the fertile six months of each year, or fertility rites.
Northern Europeans were not the only peoples who celebrated a holiday like Beltain. The ancient Romans traditionally practiced an important festival called Floralia. It was a five day celebration of the flower goddess, Flora. Floralia was enjoyed from April 28th through May second. After Rome extended its empire to the British Isles, the customs of Beltane and Floralia became mixed together.
A favorite part of the May Day tradition are the Maypole and greenery. In much of Europe, this practice survived the arrival of Christianity in a manner much as the survival of decorated winter holiday indoor trees. To Europeans, Maypoles were just too good to be forgotten. In some areas the Maypole kept its original name and purpose and in other areas it became known by such names as the “May Tree” or, in France, as the “Tree of Liberty”.
Regardless of where Maypoles are enjoyed, the common people celebrate May Day in much the same way their ancient ancestors always did. In the spirit of fertility and growth, the people dance around it with happiness and joy.
There has long been some sort of similar Maypole or May Tree artifact associated with both the Northern Europeans and the ancient Romans. People from both areas felled trees then removed most of the branches–leaving only the uppermost in place. Around dawn, the trimmed trees were brought into villages and towns then were wrapped in garlands of flowers.
After the English colonized North America, the British tradition of a Maypole decorated with ribbons and streamers came with the settlers. Unfortunately, the Puritans soon discouraged and prohibited May Day celebrations just as they did the celebration of Christmas. After Puritan culture subsided, Christmas returned in grand form and so did May Day, but to a much lesser extent. Now, May Day is mainly just a curious relic of our ancient heritage that children celebrate with May Baskets and maybe Maypoles.
Whether you celebrate the contemporary May Day in its traditional form or in the political incarnation that celebrates the struggles of the labor movement, have a very meaningful May Day.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes the Roman poet, Virgil. “Now every field is clothed with grass, and every tree with leaves; now the woods put forth their blossoms, and the year assumes its gay attire.”