History and origin of May Day

Kadi Pameih *

History and origin of May Day

The tradition of Maypole and greeneries | Maypoles and trees | Roots of May Day celebration in America

Well, it is a fact that May Day, which the children do enjoy with all vibes, is not an overly prominent holiday in America. Yet, it does have a long and notable history as one of the world's principal festivals. The origin of the May Day as a day for celebration dates back to the days, even before the birth of Christ. And like many ancient festivals it too has a Pagan connection.

For the Druids of the British Isles, May 1 was the second most important holiday of the year. Because, it was when the festival of Beltane held. It was thought that the day divides the year into half. The other half was to be ended with the Samhain on November 1. Those days the May Day custom was the setting of new fire. It was one of those ancient New Year rites performed throughout the world. And the fire itself was thought to lend life to the burgeoning springtime sun. Cattle were driven through the fire to purify them. Men, with their sweethearts, passed through the smoke for seeing good luck.

Then the Romans came to occupy the British Isles. The beginning of May was a very popular feast time for the Romans. It was devoted primarily to the worship of Flora, the goddess of flowers. It was in her honor a five day celebration, called the Floralia, was held. The five day festival would start from April 28 and end on May 2. The Romans brought in the rituals of the Floralia festival in the British Isles. And gradually the rituals of the Floralia were added to those of the Beltane. And many of today's customs on the May Day bear a stark similarity with those combined traditions.

May day observance was discouraged during the Puritans. Though, it was relived when the Puritans lost power in England, it didn't have the same robust force. Gradually, it came to be regarded more as a day of joy and merriment for the kids, rather than a day of observing the ancient fertility rights.

The tradition of Maypole and greeneries:

By the Middle Ages every English village had its Maypole. The bringing in of the Maypole from the woods was a great occasion and was accompanied by much rejoicing and merrymaking. The Maypoles were of all sizes. And one village would vie with another to show who could produce the tallest Maypole. Maypoles were usually set up for the day in small towns, but in London and the larger towns they were erected permanently.

The Maypole tradition suffered a setback for about a couple of decades since the Puritan Long Parliament stopped it in 1644. However, with the return of the Stuarts, the Maypole reappeared and the festivities of May Day were again enjoyed. One of the great Maypoles, was

The changes brought about by the Reformation included attempts to do away with practices that were obviously of pagan origin. But the Maypole, or, May tree, was not issued in practice at the behest of the second Stuart.

Although they succeeded in doing this, Maypole with most of the other traditions, many still survived. And Maypole is one of them. In France it merely changed its name. In Perigord and elsewhere, the May Tree became the "Tree of Liberty" and was the symbol of the French Revolution. Despite the new nomenclature, the peasants treated the tree in the same traditional spirit. And they would dance around it the same way as their forefathers had always done.

Maypoles and trees:

Trees have been linked to a part of celebration, perhaps, to the days ancient New Year rites. The association of trees to this celebration has come riding on the back of the spring festival in ancient Europe. Trees have always been the symbol of the great vitality and fertility of nature and were often used at the spring festivals of antiquity. The anthropologist E. O. James finds a strong relationship between the ancient tree related traditions of the British and the Romans.

According to James' description, as a part of the May Day celebration, the youths in old Europe cut down a tree, lopped off the branches leaving a few at the top. They then wrapped it round with violets like the figure of the Attis, the ancient Roman god. At sunrise, they used to take it back to their villages by blowing horns and flutes. In a similar manner, the sacred pine tree representing the god Attis was carried in procession to the temple of Cybele on Rome's Palatine Hill during the Spring Festival of March 22.

Roots of May Day celebration in America:

The Puritans frowned on May Day, so the day has never been celebrated with as much enthusiasm in the United States as in Great Britain. But the tradition of celebrating May Day by dancing and singing around a maypole, tied with colorful streamers or ribbons, survived as a part of the English tradition. The kids celebrating the day by moving back and forth around the pole with the the streamers, choosing of May queen, and hanging of May baskets on the doorknobs of folks -- are all the leftovers of the old European traditions.

International Labour Day or May Day

May Day, the first day of the month of May is celebrated all over India as a spring fertility festival to honour goddess spring. The day also commemorates the “International Worker’s Day” which has a historicsignificance. It is also a day of political protests. May Day is otherwise observed as a saint's feast day or a day for organized labor. In many countries, it is a public holiday.

May Day as Labour Day

In many countries including India, May Day is also celebrated as Labour Day. The day originates with the US labour movement in the late 19th century. The history of the movement dates back to May 1, 1886. On this dayseveral labour unions across the US went on strike, demanding a standard workday of eight hours. On May 4th there was bloodshed in Chicago's Haymarket Square – A bomb thrown by a revolutionist led to the deaths of a dozen people (including several police officers) and the injury of over 100 people.

The protests did not get an immediate outcome, but they proved effective subsequently, as eight-hour work days became the norm in many countries across the globe. This day was hence chosen as a day for demonstrations, parades, and speeches. It is a major state holiday in US, Russia and other communist countries. In India, May Day has also been declared a public holiday.


Labor Day is celebrated on May 1 in many countries around the world and it is still often a day for protests and rallies. On this day, various labour organizations across the country carry out processions and organize competitions for children belonging to labour class.

However, in recent years, the celebration of this day has taken a new turn, where the workers and trade unions demand to safeguard their interests and give the economic reforms a humane face.


* Kadi Pameih (For Social publicity ) wrote this article for
The writer can be contacted at kdpamson(at)yahoo(dot)in
This article was webcasted on April 30 2012.

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