The first day of May has a long history as a special day of celebration. In pre-Christian Rome, it was celebrated as the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and fertility, and still in many countries, the underlying theme of most May festivals is fertility.
In England, it's a traditional first-day-of-summer holiday — stop reading and wave to the English enjoying their long weekend right now. Traditionally maidens danced around the maypole, weaving a pattern with the ribbons they held, and men leapt about with bells on their knees, performing Morris dances and such. Some beauteous village maiden was also crowned Queen of the May. Remnants of these traditions still survive today and revivals are taking place on some regions.
Remember the old nursery songs about going a'maying? Chamber's Book of Days (1869) described it thus:
In the sixteenth century it was still customary for the middle and humbler classes to go forth at an early hour of the morning, in order to gather flowers and hawthorn branches, which they brought home about sunrise, with accompaniments of horn and tabor, and all possible signs of; joy and merriment. With these spoils they would decorate every door and window in the village. By a natural transition of ideas, they gave to the hawthorn bloom the name of the May; they called this ceremony 'the bringing home the May;' they spoke of the expedition to the woods as 'going a-Maying.' The fairest maid of the village was crowned with flowers, as the 'Queen of the May;' the lads and lasses met, danced and sang together, with a freedom which we would fain think of as bespeaking comparative innocence as well as simplicity.
The good Mr. Chambers also had this to say about non-English customs, which made me chuckle:
Among the barbarous Celtic populations of Europe, there was a heathen festival on the same day, but it does not seem to have been connected with flowers.
And thus they are dismissed. LOL
In Celtic nations, May is the time of the pagan festival of Beltane, sometimes celebrated on the 1st, though it varies. The festival of Beltane features bonfires to symbolize purification and to welcome in summer in the hope of a good harvest. There also some rituals to ensure health and protect people from harm, especially other worldly harm.
Many of these rituals still take place today. In Edinburgh, for instance, the Beltane Fire Festival is an annual event that was revived in 1988, and has grown in popularity since. As well as the bonfires and traditional rituals, it's also an arts and music festival. I don't know whether it's my Scottish blood, but I do love a good bonfire.
Another traditional ritual still practiced by some in Edinburgh is to climb to Arthur's Seat at dawn on the first of May to wash your face in the morning dew. In ancient times, druids gathered this dew before dawn on May Day. To the druids, it was the most sacred of all water forms and Beltane morning dew was believed to hold special virtue, assuring any who were sprinkled with it of health and well being — and, of course, beauty, which made the ritual popular with young women and girls.
The French have a lovely tradition for May 1st. On that day in 1561, Charles IX of France was given some sweet-scented lily-of-the-valley as a lucky charm. Obviously a bit of a charmer himself, he decided to present the ladies of his court with lily-of-the-valley as well. The practice survived even the Revolution, and to this day it's a custom in France to give a sprig of lily-of-the-valley — and selling it is even free of tax. The tradition is for the lady receiving the flower to give a kiss in return. No wonder the tradition has lasted.
Flowers are also the gift of choice in Hawaii, where May Day is Lei Day. The day might have been invented by journalist in the 1920's but it's a lovely idea, and celebrates native Hawaiian culture, so what's not to love?
For many people around the world MayDay has quite another meaning — it's Labour Day, and celebrates workers' achievements, particularly the fight for the eight hour day. That was achieved first in Australia and the first Eight Hour Procession was first held in Melbourne in May, 1856. They marched behind a banner declaring "Eight Hours Labour, Eight Hours Rest, Eight Hours Recreation" and whenever I go into the city I pass this memorial, which commemorates it.
So what does May Day mean to you? A holiday? An occasion to be celebrated? Just another day? And what May Day tradition would you like to adopt? Me, I want a bonfire and some lily-of-the-valley, please. So, what did you do on May Day?