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The pagan roots of May Day

Image: Large fires are lit on Walpurgis Night to drive away the last of the winter cold and dark |

Whether joining your local community for a Maypole dance on the local green or finally getting around to that long-overdue DIY project, there’s no right or wrong way to observe the May Day bank holiday. Set between the spring equinox and the summer solstice, May Day is one of the oldest annual traditions still celebrated across much of Europe.

Marking the start of summer, May Day has been observed by many different ancient cultures throughout history. While there is no single point of origin for the celebrations and traditions that we still practice today, it’s not hard to see how the start of summer has inspired our ancestors through the millennia. The peak planting time for a fruitful harvest later in the year, the start of May marks the most fertile time of year for most of Europe.

As the festival has grown through history, new traditions have formed and become part of our annual observances for the changing seasons. From dancing around the Maypole to feasting and even fire, here are the pagan origins of May Day.


One of the earliest examples of a May Day festival is the ancient Roman festival of Floralia. Dedicated to the Roman goddess Flora, the six-day event was held between 28th April and 3rd May each year. One of the oldest Roman goddesses, Flora, was the goddess of flowers, vegetation, and fertility.

To ensure a fruitful year ahead in livestock and crop, the festival of Floralia featured several traditions designed to find favour with Flora. Observances included wearing brightly coloured clothing, dancing and partying, and animals representing fertility being released throughout the towns. Temples were bedecked with blooms of wildflowers and vegetation, and many festivalgoers would dance naked in the streets.

The six-day-long festival was full of salacious and raunchy activity to celebrate Flora’s powers of fertility. It would have featured sacrifices and a considerable amount of feasting and drinking before it culminated in the Games of Flora, where competitive events, gladiator tournaments, and live theatre were held in Flora’s honour.

Walpurgis Night

Saint Walpurgis Night celebrations, also known as ‘Night of the Witches’, start on the night of 30th April and finish on 1st May each year. Despite its name suggesting that the celebration is of Christian origin, the festival’s pagan roots hint at a far more ancient beginning.

Celebrated across Europe, each region that observes Walpurgis Night has its own traditions and observances. In Lincolnshire, Walpurgis Night was a time for hanging cowslip to ward off evil, while in Sweden and the Netherlands, bonfires and ‘May-blazes’ were lit to drive away the last of the winter cold and dark and welcome the summer months.


Celebrated mainly in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man, the Celtic celebration of Beltane was observed each year to celebrate the passing of spring into summer. Translated from the Gaelic for ‘bright fire’, one of the overarching themes of the Celtic celebration is fire.

One of the four major Celtic festivals, Beltane marked the start of the pastoral summer season, which was when it was time for herds of livestock to be driven out to summer pastures. Many of the traditions and celebrations were designed to help ensure the safety of the herds on their journey and protect them from any disease, danger, or bad spirits.

Celebrations included lighting bonfires in the farming fields as it was believed that the flames could purify and protect against supernatural harm. Cattle were driven between bonfires or made to leap over the flames, and many humans joined in the practice to gain a little luck for themselves. White and yellow wildflowers were collected and made into bouquets and garlands used to decorate windows and entryways or fastened onto cattle to encourage a healthier milk flow. Blessings were also read, and the May Bush was decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, and shells, and the townsfolk would often dance around them.