Opinion: May Day! May Day! May Day!
No, that’s not the distress signal that you hear when an airplane is in trouble and going down. That is the hullabaloo and razzamatazz you might have heard when ancient Celts “brought in the May” and celebrated the return of spring on May 1st. Of course, in Gaelic, “May Day” would be “Là Bealtaine.”
May 1st was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and the Isle of Man as the mid-point between the spring equinox and summer solstice. It was one of the four seasonal festivals in that region, along with Samhain, Imbolc, and Lughnasadh. Each of those occasions — none of which is pronounced as they appear to be spelled — was the halfway marker between the year’s equinoxes and solstices.
Beltane, the modern spelling for the May 1st festival, probably derived from the Celtic word that means “the fires of Hell.” It was likely a reference to the Celtic sun god, Belenus. Moreover, it represents the union of a Celtic goddess and the “Green Man,” or the coming together of male and female to create life, just as new vegetation springs from the earth at this time of year.
Like many other holidays that originated in ancient times, Beltane is rooted in agriculture. So, flora — and to a lesser extent, fauna — were an integral part of the celebrations. Springtime songs and dances hailed the sown fields that were beginning to sprout, cattle were driven to new pasture, and the doors and windows of houses were decorated with flowers.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac states, “Such rites originally may have been intended to ensure fertility for crops and, by extension, for livestock and humans, but in most cases this significance was gradually lost, so that the practices survived largely as popular festivities.”
For many years, festivities were centered on the Maypole, a living tree that was brought into the village. Men, usually fortified with lots of ale, would go into the forest, argue interminably about which tree was perfect for the event, and — after a fist fight or two — dig up a tree, bring it back to the village, and plant it in the village center.
Ancient Celts would dance around the tree, which was decorated and transformed into the Maypole, singing songs to the gods in the hope that good fortune would smile upon the land and the people. The songs were really prayers for good crops and healthy babies.
Dancing around the Maypole was also a courting rite. Young villagers would dance around the tree from early afternoon until sundown. Because there was usually no fraternizing between the sexes during the winter months, the May celebration gave young men and women an opportunity to get to know each other.
If two young people were still paired by sundown, the courtship was allowed to continue. It was then expected that they would marry six weeks later, specifically on Midsummer’s Day in June. And, this is probably how the tradition of a “June wedding” came into existence.
Queen of the May
All Celtic villages had Maypoles during the Middle Ages. The custom even spread from Celtic lands (Ireland, Scotland, and Wales) to Anglo-Saxon England. In Wales, Beltane was called “Calan Mai” or “Calan Haf,” but the celebrating started the evening before May 1, known as “May Eve.”
In England, it was the custom to select a maiden to serve as May Queen. She symbolized the goddess of spring, the “Flower Bride,” “Queen of the Faeries,” and “Lady of the Flowers.” Like the Maypole, everything revolved around her. She stood for purity, strength, and the potential for growth.
In America, the custom nearly died out because of the Puritans. They considered the celebrations of May Day to be licentious and a remnant of pagan religions. So, the observance was strictly forbidden and never became an important part of American culture.
May Day enjoyed a revival during the 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. In Hawaii, May 1 is known as “Lei Day,” a lei being a Hawaiian garland of flowers that is worn around the neck. Dancing around the Maypole was largely an activity for young children. However, a new custom was introduced: The May Basket.
A May Basket was a paper or straw basket filled with flowers and, sometimes, sweets. A young person would leave the basket on the doorstep of a potential sweetheart. Then the young person would knock on the door or ring the doorbell, yell “May Basket,” and run away. If the recipient of the anonymous gift caught the giver, he or she would be entitled to a kiss.
However, the May Basket was not just a courting gimmick. May Baskets were left on random doorsteps or were given to neighbors. The gift could show friendship, affection, or admiration, and the anonymity introduced a sense of intrigue. In 1920, some enterprising schoolchildren made a May Basket for the wife of President Calvin Coolidge. They even managed to sneak onto the grounds of the White House and hang it on the door, a stunt that would have serious repercussions in modern times.
Finally, here’s a fun fact from the Old Farmer’s Almanac: “The term ‘Mayday!’ is not related to the ‘May Day’ spring festival, but instead comes from the French phrase ‘M’aidez!’ which means ‘Help me!’ If you hear ‘Mayday!’ repeated three times, it is an urgent distress call of the highest order.”
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Jim Glynn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. He does not have a Maypole.