May 1st, often called May Day, is many different holidays to many different people. It’s a celebration of Spring. It’s a day of political protests. It’s a neopagan festival. It’s a saint’s feast day. And it’s a day for organized labor. In over 90 countries, it is a national holiday.
Origins as a Pagan spring feast
In pre-Christian Europe, among rural folk, May Day was celebrated as the beginning of spring season, honouring the pagan fertility gods & deities of the crops and fields. The day marked the victory of spring over winter. Darkness gave way to sunlight. May 1st marked the beginning of summer and was historically associated with Pagan goddesses of fertility, flowers, fairies, and many more.
May Day is also one of the corner days which fall between the solar festivals of the year (the equinoxes and solstices). Like Halloween, this is a night when witches, fairies and ghosts wander freely. The veil between the worlds is thin. But while Halloween is a festival of death (a time for letting go and mourning), May Day, on the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year, is about life. A day about about falling in love and frolicking in the woods
As ancient pagans counted their days from sundown to sundown, many traditions actually celebrate May Day from sundown on April 30 to sundown on May 1.
The May Queen and Belthane
Choosing a May Queen and King was also a big part of celebrating May Day. A young girl was chosen by the village to represented the Goddess in her maiden aspect. The May Queen would then choose her King (the Green Man)
Beltane is the Celtic May Eve holiday celebration rooted in the traditions of the wedding. It depicts the marriage of the May Queen and the Green man, as an archetypal union of the masculine and feminine. This marriage was not one of political strategy but rather passionate physical love and a deep connection to nature. Men and women were celebrated as equals because masculine and feminine forces working in tandem were necessary to provide a bountiful harvest at the end of the growing season. Beltane was a fire festival traditionally celebrated with open expressions of sexuality, music, drinking, connecting with nature, Hawthorn flower crowns, and fire…lots of fire
The Maypole is a symbol with many meanings. Often celebrated as a phallic symbol, The Maypole dance is a collaborative ceremony between the ultra-phallic giant pole and the feminine ribbon wrapped around it. The dance is a round dance of alternating male and female dancers, weaving in and out in a maze movement, plaiting ribbons as they go. Maypole dances fulfilled social and sacred functions. They helped people flirt and mingle socially. They also raised energy in a patterned and focused way.
In old England, the young people went out into the woods on May Day Eve and stayed all night… You can imagine what went on then. It’s no wonder the spring fire festival has been met with such disapproval throughout the ages (I’m looking at you, Puritans).
St. Walburga’s day
In Christian era, May 1st was fixed as the feast day of the 8th century catholic saint Walburga. The Finnish name for May Day, Vappu, and its Swedish name, Valborg, are derived from her name. Saint Walburga became known as the protector against witchcraft and sorcery. During the Middle Ages in Germany and Scandinavia, the May Day Eve (called Walpurgisnacht in German) was believed to be a night of witch revelry.
May Day as a Labour Day
Towards the end of 19th century, the working classes in many countries were struggling for equal rights and duties. On May 1st, 1886, North American workers declared strikes across the United States and Canada to press for an eight-hour working day. At the demonstrations held in Chicago during the first days of May, a number of striking workers were killed by the police in a riot. In addition, seven police officers were killed in a bomb explosion at the Chicago haymarket. Although the actual bomb-thrower was never identified, four trade unionists were found guilty of the act and executed.
To commemorate these “Haymarket Martyrs”, May 1st was declared an international workers holiday by the International Working Men’s Association in 1889 in Paris. The red flag was adopted as the symbol for the working class movement, representing the blood of the martyrs who died for the working-class cause. May Day has long been a focal point for demonstrations by various socialist, communist and anarchist groups. Also today, the organized workers in many countries celebrate May Day, carrying their trade union banners.
Modern May Day in the North
Pagans, Christians, Politics, Witches, Dancing, Flowers, Spring, Outdoors. That’s a lot to incorporate into a holiday. The Scandinavians have got it covered.
In many northern countries, the celebration starts on May Day Eve, In the urban areas, the downtown streets, pubs and restaurants fill with people in a party mood. The carnival atmosphere is enhanced by people wearing funny or frightening masks, hats, wigs and other party accessories. Colourful balloons, pompoms, party blowouts, serpentine throws and sprays, noisemakers and horns of various kinds are also popular. For some people, the festivities also include a rather heavy consumption of alcohol, in the true Nordic fashion. Out in the country side you’ll find similar revalries and the inclusion of flowers and fire…lots and lots of fire.
After the (sometimes heavy) celebration on the May Day Eve, it’s good that May 1st is a national holiday. Many organized marches take place for Labour Day as well, many people attend a traditional May Day lunch. Large crowds gather in public parks, patios, or at homes to eat, drink, sing and enjoy each other’s company.