May Day. Gathering and bestowing of flowers, dancing around May Poles. What a delightful and innocent way to welcome Summer.
Or so we might think in the 21st Century. In fact, like so many of our holiday traditions, May Day has its origins in ancient times and through several cultures. As so many of those current holidays, the Church also has a religious observance slotted for that day, as well.
The feast of Sts. Phillip and James is held on May 1, honoring the dedication of a church now known at the Church of the Twelve Apostles, located in Rome. It originally was dedicated to Phillip and James.
Also from Rome—at least, from early Romans—comes the festival of Floralia, celebrating Flora goddess of flowers. That festival began April 27.
May 1 falls on an important date in other early non-Christian cultures. It coincides with the Gaelic Beltane festivities, marking the return of Summer. It celebrated fertility. While Spring was observed earlier, Summer was especially important, because the first crops were beginning to peek above the ground and the fertility was to be celebrated. Green was a color especially tied to the day, most evident in the later Middle Ages.
Beltane began the evening of April 30 and continued the following day. Huge bonfires were lit to much rejoicing, celebrating fertility. (For more details about Beltane–also spelled Beltaine– visit my friend Mary Morgan’s blog here: www.marymorganauthor.com and go to “Mary’s Tavern”.
Early in the morning, young men and women would go into the fields and forests to pick flowers and greenery. The phrase “gone-a-Maying” stems from that (Cosman.) The day of feasting often was capped by entertainment such as that from Morris Dancers, a group of men who would perform for the villagers.
Often, villages would erect a May Pole. The original purpose of May Poles isn’t clear, but it has been suggested they may have been phallic symbols to represent fertility. Young girls danced around the poles in early such festivities. Eventually the tradition evolved, and the poles were decorated with flowers and ribbons. Some sources say any of the villagers could dance around them, although the activity was often the purview of the young. Some such poles were so tall, they had to be embedded in the earth. Those extremely tall ones were left standing year-round. Others that weren’t so tall were removed until the next year.
Just in case we think all this might only be myth, the London church St. Andrew Undershaft reportedly took its name from the May Pole that was erected across from it each year. (The May Pole there met its end at the hands of a mob in 1547, who declared it a “pagan idol.”)
In some places a Queen of May was chosen. She presided over any games and awarded prizes Madeline Pelner Cosman, in Medieval Holidays and Festivals, described Maypole dancers as stomping the ground, apparently a remnant of even earlier pagan celebrations where folks would stomp the ground to awaken it from winter sleep.
One aspect of the holiday, as mentioned, is its association with flowers. And until at least the mid-20th Century, certain remnants remained in our culture, here. I don’t know about you, but I remember my friends and I making May Baskets in elementary school art class,, usually from construction paper. On the first day of May we filled the baskets with flowers. Then we’d hang them on the handles of doors in the neighborhood, ring the doorbell (or knock), and run.
We’d hide nearby to watch the door open and the baskets discovered. The smiles of pleasure the folks had as they picked up the flowers were gratifying to us kids.
In school, we also had Maypole dances—often at recess, or at Spring programs presented for parents. Inevitably one of the dancers would drop a streamer or go under when he or she should have gone over and the resulting colorful pattern would be knotted. But that was all right. Our parents loved it anyway.
I don’t know if that’s done anymore; if not, it’s a shame. It was such a fun thing to do for others, plus we had a lot of fun making those baskets. My best friend was very artistic. She’d cut and paste pieces into lovely containers, make designs on the sides.
My talents stopped at rolling a sheet of paper into a cone. If I was lucky, I’d succeed in pasting a narrow strip on for a handle.
Children have innocent fun with those traditions. They don’t realize the traditions have roots in ancient times.
Traditions may evolve over the years, but it’s important to remember them. And what better way than with a gift of flowers in a red paper cone placed on the door of someone special.
Did you do anything special to observe May Day when you were young?
Cosman, Madeleine Pelner. Medieval Holidays and Festivals. New York: Scribners, 1981
And don’t forget to check out my fellow Medieveal Monday Ladies to see in they have a treat in store today;