Happy May Day! (a little belated)

I got off work a little early today, and decided that instead of running, I’d spend the time wisely writing. Especially since I have yet again been slacking off (it seems to now be an every other week sort of thing…)  The windows are open with a slight breeze blowing through, the birds are chirping and the crickets singing, and I’m sipping my homemade iced latte: all perfect ingredients to conduct a little research and let the words flow.

Since today is May 1, and traditionally called ‘May Day,’ I thought I’d post a little about the history behind May Day, and a lost significance among today’s generations.

A celebration of life, fertility, and the coming of summer, May Day is rooted in tradition throughout Europe:  Beltane in the Celtic traditions of northern England, Ireland, and Scotland; Walpurgisnacht in Germany and Scandinavia; and in Ancient Rome, the celebrations were in honor of Flora, goddess of flowers and the season of spring.  Bonfires, games, dances, parades, plays, and the crowning of a May Queen were all part of the festivities during May Day.  In the United States, large fetes and festivals were planned to celebrate the coming of spring.  Women’s colleges across the United States had huge celebrations in honor of May Day, a tradition which lasted until the 1930s or even later for some.

May Day Fete, University of Colorado, 1914.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

May Day Fete, University of Colorado, 1914. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Neighborhoods had local festivals, with all the young girls gathering to nominate a May Queen.  The remaining girls were her fairies.  The children in the festivals often put on performances for spectators, including plays from Shakespeare or Robin Hood.


May Day Queen Irma Sweeney, 1925.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

May Day Queen Irma Sweeney in Washington DC, 1925. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Most May Day festivities I can think of or I’ve seen photographs of involve young girls and women dressed in all white, carrying garlands and bouquets of flowers, just like in the photographs above.  How late these celebrations continued, I’m not sure, but I’m guessing most celebrations ended in the 1930s, with the Great Depression looming over families and whole towns.  As far as I know, there are very few May Day celebrations still active in the United States.  If there are any, they simply provide entertainment to children in the form of running around a pole with brightly colored ribbons.

Before the May Day celebrations of America though, traditions in England stemmed from Elizabethan merry making, and even before that through pagan and celtic traditions of old.  In the mid-19th century, the May Day customs were revived and most likely exaggerated by wealthy gentry, with authors and poets like Washington Irving providing written accounts, weaving imagery through words.  While their words ran rampant across the page, one artist, Charles Robert Leslie, took it upon himself to interpret a May Day through a painting.  May Day in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, c. 1836, is one of the earliest known pictorial representations of May Day festivities.


Engraving of Charles Leslie's May Day in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, c. 1836.  Image courtesy of the British Museum, London.

Engraving of Charles Leslie’s May Day in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, c. 1836. Image courtesy of the British Museum, London.


A few decades later, several late-Victorian English folklorists took note of May Day activities, comparing them across the regions.  In one instance, J.P. Emslie remarks on his experiences in Wilton and Salisbury on May 1, 1896.  He states,

There I saw many parties of little girls, one of whom would carry a short stick, at the top of which was a garland or a bunch of flowers.  The girls would stand at the doors of houses and sing a song, the last line of which was: “Please give a penny for the garland.” Wilton is a small town, and the garlands were numerous, so I suppose the house to house visitation was soon done, as when I left, soon after nine a.m., the girls were either wandering aimlessly about with their garlands or sitting on doorsteps counting their gains.  I was told that the pence are collected in order to be afterwards spent at Wilton Fair, which is held the first Monday in May.

The same day I reached Salisbury about eleven o’clock.  Although it is only three miles from Wilton, the fashion of the May observance was different.  The girls, instead of being in parties of four or five, went about in couples, each member of which held the end of a short stick, to the middle of which a garland was tied, and hung between the two girls as they walked along.  The garland (as I supposed I must call it) was in the form of a crown, whose circlet and bows were covered with flowers.


May Day festivities in Forest Glen, Maryland, c. 1907.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

May Day festivities in Forest Glen, Maryland, c. 1907. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.


Today in England, Morris dancers still practice their own May Day custom of performing a traditional dance at dawn.  Because Morris dancing was a folk tradition that was waning with the subsequent generations, it is now practiced and presented by special groups in order to keep the tradition alive.  I am honored to say I saw a Morris Dance being performed while in Stratford-upon-Avon!


Morris dancers in Stratford, 2008.

Morris dancers in Stratford, 2008.


If you have around 20 minutes to spare, the following Library of Congress video on folk traditions of May Day, focusing on the Maypole and Morris dancing, is a really great resource.




Did you do anything to celebrate May Day?  I personally reveled in the thoughts that my irises are almost blooming!  Not necessarily a May Day tradition of old, but a small internal celebration of spring, nonetheless!


Further Reading:

Emslie, J.P. ‘May Day’ Folklore, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Jun., 1900), p. 210. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2014 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1253266
Hall, Stephanie. ‘May Day: A Festival of Flowers.’ Library of Congress. 30 April 2014. Weblog. 1 May 2014 http://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/category/dance/
Judge, Roy.  ‘May Day and Merrie England’ Folklore, Vol. 102, No. 2 (1991), pp. 131-148.  JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2014 http://www.jstor.org/stable/1260953
Leslie, Charles. May Day During the Reign of Queen Elizabeth. British Museum. c. 1836. Image. 1 May 2014. http://streetsofsalem.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/may-day-in-the-reign-of-queen-elizabeth.jpg
Library of Congress. ‘May Day festivities, Forest Glen, Md.’ c. 1907. Image. 1 May 2014 http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/93503494/
Library of Congress. ‘Dorothy Zimmerman, as Spring, crowning Irma Sweeney as the May Queen at the May Day festival at the Neighborhood House, Washington, D.C.’ 1925. Image. 1 May 2014 http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/97519624/
Library of Congress. ‘May Day Fete, 1914, University of Colorado.’ 1914. Image. 1 May 2014 http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/pan.6a27211/?loclr=blogflt
Seger, Donna.  ‘Maypoles.’ 1 May 2012. Weblog. 1 May 2014 http://streetsofsalem.com/2012/05/01/maypoles/

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