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Celebrating May Day

Updated on May 1, 2012

Today is the first day of May and it seems appropriate to write about May day celebrations.

As a child growing up in the UK May day celebrations were linked with the tradition of May Queens and dancing around the maypole.

It's time to look at where some of these traditions originated.

Soft haze of bluebells cloaks the woodland floor.
Cream froth of lacy flowers lines the lane.
White hawthorn blooms gleam ghostly through the mist
of the first dewy dawn of May; Beltane

Marking the beginning of summer

May day was originally a pagan celebration for the start of summer.

The holiday is associated with many different festivals in Europe which were held at the same time of year.

The sheep and cattle, freed from winter quarters,
feed thankfully upon the cool fresh grass.
A hovering skylark sings its song above as
a silent swallow makes its swooping pass.

Beltane- the Gaelic Festival

This Celtic festival was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Traditionally bonfires were lit to symbolize purification and transition. They were used together with rituals to keep away spirits. It is no coincidence that May 1st is 6 months following Nov first, another time where the division between the living and the dead is thought to be at it's most penetrable.

Livestock were driven between two bonfire to purify them before driving them out to their summer pastures. Often people would also walk between the fires to symbolically purify themselves as well.

In the 20th century May boughs were placed over doors to homes and bonfires were still traditionally lit.

In recent years some of these old traditions have been revived. In Edinburgh, Scotland, a Beltane fire festival is held every year on Carlton Hill (See the short video above).

Walpurgis night

In central and northern Europe a similar bonfire festival is celebrated.

Walpurgis night is named after Saint Walpurga, an English missionary, who was canonized on May 1st 870. This celebration is held on April 30th and traditionally marked with dancing.

As with Beltane, the holiday is also associated with other worldly spirits. This holiday was captured in Goethe's "Faust" and has been interpreted in various productions and even ballets.

The powerful summer sun is wedded to
the air and water of young Mother Earth,
who pregnant with the bounty of the year,
blooms radiantly while she awaits the birth.

Contemporary May Day celebrations

The May Queen

A tradition which survives until today is the crowning of the May Queen.

The May Queen was originally associated with the Roman goddess Flora, who was the goddess of flowers, fertility and celebration.

The Queen of May begins the May celebrations. She wears a white dress to symbolize purity and a crown, which is often made of flowers. Walking or riding at the front of the May Day procession she leads the community to the celebration grounds. After the Queen makes her speech the dancing can begin.

The maypole stands upon the village green.
Its many coloured ribbons fluttering free
until the dancers intertwine them closely.
Binding to earth the sun's fertility.

Maypole dancing

At the May Day celebrations young people traditionally dance around a May pole to celebrate youth and the beginning of the growing season. The dances require considerable practice as intricate patterns are created using the ribbons that flow from it's peak.

Although the origins of the "Maypole" are fairly vague, it is thought that the main relationship is to trees. The Maypole represents a universal tree around which all life revolves. It is also thought of as a fertility symbol.

Maypoles often stay in position throughout the year and are a symbol of community.

The tradition of Maypoles spread to North America from Europe and continues today.

Morris dancing

Another traditional dance at May Day celebrations is Morris dancing.

This form of dancing continues to be performed in the UK and also occurs at other traditional celebrations.

The dancers use sticks, swords, handkerchiefs and bells in dances where the knees are raised high and fiddle music is played.

May Day in the Commonweath

Here in British Columbia, every year May Day is celebrated in New Westminster.

This tradition started way back in 1870 and is thought to be the longest running traditional May day celebration in the commonwealth.

The video to the right shows hundreds of school children dancing round the Maypoles in 2011.

Children weave daisy chains; their elders gather
to dance and sing in sweet anticipation
of welcome summer,nature's fruitfulness.
May day; a carnival, a celebration.

It's great to see that the tradition of celebrating youth and vitality continues to this day!


Poetry for Beltane by Jean Rosser

Maggie and Jean's page


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