More than 2,000 years ago in Rome, people worshipped Flora, the goddess of flowers. They honored Flora with a celebration at the beginning of May. The celebration included feasts, parades, plays, and sports contests.
In Great Britain the Ancient Celts honored their sun god in May. They believed that evil spirits of cold and darkness captured the sun god each autumn. In order for the sun god to escape the Celts lit bonfires on the hilltops to scare away the evil spirits.
In some areas people worshipped tree gods. The tree gods were honored on the first of May by going to the woods and cutting tree branches to be placed over the people’s doors. Sometimes a whole tree was cut down. This tree was called the May Tree. The May Tree could be carried house to house bringing a blessing to each home or it might be erected in the centre of the village.
May Day Traditions
There are several traditions still celebrated today which grew out of ancient spring time observances.
One tradition is that of the maypole. A tall straight tree was cut down and its branches were trimmed off. In many countries this “maypole” is stood in the centre of town and everyone helps to decorate it.
Early decorations included garlands of the pink and white blossoms of the hawthorn bush and ribbons. Later a maypole dance, which may have been borrowed from the Moorish people of Spain, was introduced. In this dance, sometimes called the Ribbon Dance, ribbons are fastened to the top of the maypole. Dancers are then given the other end of a ribbon. As the dancers circle the maypole they criss cross their ribbons weaving them in a bright pattern down the pole.
In England and America children sometimes deliver May baskets. Tiny baskets, usually made of paper, are filled with flowers. One basket was made for each friend. Then on the first of May children would deliver the baskets.
Traditionally the baskets were hung on a doorknob. The sender would then ring the bell or knock upon the door and run away to hide, in much the same way that a secret valentine might be sent.
The May Queen
Traditionally in England a young girl was selected to be Queen of the May. All the children dressed in bright clothes, and girls wore long trains and wreaths in their hair. Each child carried a garland with a small May Queen doll dressed in white placed in the center. The children follow the chosen Queen of the May from house to house where they stopped to recite:
A garland gay we bring you here,
And at your door we stand.
It is a sprout well budded out,
The work of our Lord’s hand.
May Day Facts
* Chimney sweeps in England at one time covered their soiled clothes with flowers and ribbons and held a parade.
* In 1644 in England, Puritans outlawed May Day celebrations as pagan rituals.
* London, England celebrated May Day in 1659 with a maypole 134′ tall. This maypole stood in London for over 50 years.
* A man named Thomas Morton erected a maypole in Massachusetts and taught Native Americans to dance around it. Having angered the Puritans settling the area, he was sent back to England.
* A flower which grows in the New England area, the arbutus, is called the mayflower. It is the state flower of Massachusetts. The arbutus eventually became endangered, and it is now against the law to pick mayflowers in Massachusetts.
* In 1957 New York City celebrated its 50th May Day festival. Every maypole was painted gold and over 12,000 children took part in the festivities.
* Over 100 years ago, the United States celebrated the beginnings of what is now Labor Day on May 1st.