The popularity of May Day has increased and decreased throughout the history of the United States. Most people remember making baskets as kids, some remember decorating poles with colorful stringers and others remember delivering flowers to homeowners anonymously. Not many people remember the reasons why we do these things or why we have theses customs. We only need to look back in time to figure out the true origins of May Day and the meaning behind it.
May Day originally started out as an ancient pagan celebration. Although many ancient cultures celebrated some form of May Day, our version of May Day mainly comes from the Roman, Celtic and Germanic pagan spring and summer time celebrations. Each culture varied in different aspects but all were held near the end of April or beginning of May. It wasn’t until Christianity started spreading across Europe that the celebrations started losing their pagan religious meaning.
A major aspect of the modern May Day is flowers and plant life. This comes from the Roman spring time festival of Flora which the Romans called Floralia, which was a five-day celebration for the goddess Flora who was the goddess of flowers, vegetation and fertility. The Romans celebrated this special occasion with dancing, competitive games, gathering of flowers, theatrical performances, circuses and sacrifices to the goddess of flowers. During the festivities, most Romans would ditch their togas for more colorful clothing adorned with flowers.
The ancient Celtic people also celebrated the new season with the festival of Beltane, Gaelic for “return of the sun.” During the festival, the Celtic people would ignite large fires and hold rituals to promote growth of crops, safety of their cattle and the protection of the people. Another aspect of Beltane is a large feast in honor of the summer sun. As the Romans worked their way across Europe many of their customs would combine with the Festival of Beltane. The Celtic people added May Poles and other aspects from different cultures that the Romans brought along with them.
Another aspect of May Day is delivering flowers, May poles or other small gifts to people anonymously. This comes from the Germanic Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night) celebrations. Usually held on the eve of the Feast of Saint Walpurga, the Germanic people would light large fires, sing and dance to drive away witches and evil spirits, who were thought to gather near or atop mountain ranges. After Saint Walpurga helped bring Christianity to Germany, the custom of erecting May poles and giving them to friends or love interests became more prevalent. Often times they would give these gifts secretly and it was up to the giver whether they would give hints or stay anonymous.
As time went on, these traditions lost their ancient meaning but continued to be cultural customs. As Europeans migrated to America and beyond these customs traveled with them. Modern day celebrations in America vary, with some associating it with the labor union movement of the late 19th century while others associate it with the celebrations of the early European customs. Why or how we celebrate isn’t as important as the actual celebration, so make sure you gather with family, friends and loved ones and celebrate the way you know how!