Like most modern day traditions, May Day derives from pagan festivities, in this instance to welcome the return of longer, warmer days. It’s a celebration of survival too, an acknowledgement that the potentially fatal winter days have passed. Now is the time to focus on the fecund and anticipate the bounteous days ahead.
Lesser known are the origins of the May Day date. 'Floralia' and, later, 'Maiouma' were Roman festivals held as early as 241 BC and typified by, at times, debauched celebrations and sacrifices to worship the gods. However, these were held at the end of April and lasted into the early part of May, rather than being confined specifically to the first day of May.
In areas of Europe, this date was better known as one of the Celtic cross-quarter days, a midway point between the appropriate solstice/equinox. The Gaelic May Day was called 'Beltane', which means "the fires of Bel", referring to the Celtic sun god, Belenus.
This festival of fire and feasts was traditionally celebrated in parts of Ireland and Scotland and is enjoying somewhat of a revival in the UK in recent years, though one hopes the sacrificial lamb aspect remains with our forebearers.
Arguably pre-dating all of the above was 'Protomagia', the flower-orientated May Day festival of ancient Greece. This, in turn, may have derived from the even more ancient 'Anthesteria', held in honour of Dionysius, the Greek god of heavy drinking.
The word ‘May’ comes from the Greek goddess of fertility, Maia. 'Protomagia' is dedicated to her, Demeter - the goddess of agriculture - and Demeter’s daughter, Persephone. The Greeks still celebrate 'Protomagia' on May Day with decorative wreaths of flowers and family picnics in the countryside. However, in more recent years May Day has also come to mean less about galivanting through flora and fauna and more about sticking it to the boss.
Outside of Europe, May Day has more associations with 'International Workers Day' than it does fire and wildflowers. This is not the case in Hawaii, where May Day is called ‘Lei Day’, which was conceived in 1929 to celebrate Hawaiian culture.
'International Workers Day' sprang up from the 'Haymarket Affair', an incident that began on 1st May 1886 when a group of striking workers and their supporters, inspired by Australian stonemasons downing tools in protest of their eight-hour week in 1856, clashed with the authorities in Chicago. The resulting deaths and numerous injuries that occurred four days later when the police attempted to quell the frustrations of protests, not to mention the controversial execution of some labourers involved, sent shockwaves over the world.
Three years later, the ‘Second International’ was established in Paris to encourage global May Day protests for workers’ rights. The movement gained significant momentum, inspiring the 'Labor Day' holiday in the US and firmly establishing 1st May as a day of protest for the rights of workers all over the world.
But as we all know May Day isn’t just a global affair when it comes to the rights of workers, it’s an established part of our annual calendar and celebrated in numerous ways globally. In France, for example, May Day is known as ‘La Fête du Muguet’ (Lilly of the Valley Day) after King Charles IX of France paid forward the gesture of being gifted a lily on 1st May 1561.
And speaking of France, the word ‘Mayday’, when applied as an international distress code (made official in 1948), was the idea of Frederick Mockford, a radio officer at London’s obsolete Croydon Airport. This was because of the similarity to the French word “m'aider”, meaning “help me”. Though who he was trying to impress is anyone’s guess.
In the UK, May Day and fertility are largely celebrated with a simple village fete, a Maypole, and middle-aged men dancing with bells and hankies, but other countries prefer huge parades and processions. For example, May Day is as important as Christmas or New Year’s Eve in Finland, and in Germany, we see the origins of the Maypole - unashamedly and intentionally phallic - traditionally presented by young men to young women as a sign of affection. Women, on the other hand, send gifts of roses or rice in the shape of a heart in return. However, during leap years the roles are reversed.
Decorated wood or trees feature in Spanish May Day celebrations, and in parts of Italy, they celebrate 'Calendimaggio' (the Day of May) with romantic songs and the exchange of symbolic gifts such as eggs or wine. The Romanians have taken their love of wine to the next stage with 'Ziua Pelinului' (Mugwort Day) to ensure their fermented tipple doesn’t spoil before it’s enjoyed in Autumn. Lastly, the Portuguese bedeck their homes with yellow flowers on the last day of April to prevent the evil winter spirit from lingering and spoiling their crops.
As for the UK, the traditional Maypole dance wasn’t really a thing until it was revived by Victorian heavyweight, John Ruskin, who essentially borrowed the niceties of 'Beltane' and added a few more ribbons. He invented the whole crowning of the 'May Queen' schtick while he was at it as well.
Unfortunately, this renewed interest in May Day also piqued the interests of the previously-alluded-to Morris Dancers who, up until this point in time, had been confined to 'Whitsun' and later 'Boxing Day'. So, if you see a troupe of awkward looking men hanging about with sticks/hankies/bells/beards, you’re legitimately permitted to invite them to leave, thank you.