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May Day: What Is It All About?

May Day: What Is It All About?

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Children celebrating May Day
Children celebrating May Day

To British People, May Day is probably most closely aligned with the idea of a three-day bank holiday weekend - a chance to schedule a mini-break or to go and visit some friends for the weekend.

Even so, the days origins actually stem from pagan traditions that celebrated fertility and spring and, over time, the date has progressively come to have associations with rituals including anti-capitalist protests and maypole dancing!

So where did May Day begin?

May Day actually signifies the merging of three different festivals.

In Finland, Sweden and Germany, Walpurgis Night celebrated Flora, the goddess of flowers, in late April, which marked the arrival of summer. It involved a feast on 1st May that involved young women being kissed and dancing, and was frequently perceived as a night wherein witches would anticipate spring's arrival.

In Beltane, the 1st May was celebrated by villagers with rituals and bonfires to safeguard cattle and crops, in addition to a spectacular feast.

The celebration still occurs in its traditional pagan form in certain areas of England such as Glastonbury

Put together, these occasions evolved to be the secular festival of May Day that is now on our calendars.

What do people do on May Day?

Citizens Celebrating May Day. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

In 1660, Oliver Cromwell's government banned Maypole dancing

The maypole is directly linked with May Day, which is perceived to have its roots in the pagan tradition of chopping down small trees and rooting them in the ground to establish summer's arrival - and then dancing around them in village competitive performances.

Morris dancing is also closely associated with the day. It involves men being dressed in clothes of varying styles and colours, depending on the area of the country that they dance in.

Producing garlands of flowers and dressing in their finest clothes is a major element of the activities, and a May Queen that is often nicknamed a "Green Man" might also come into the scene as Spring's embodiment.

When exactly will it be celebrated?

The May bank holiday this year begins at the start of next week, Monday 7th.

A few interesting facts about May Day:

In Oxford, a Latin carol or hymn is sung from the highest point of Magdalen College tower on the morning of May Day, which is swiftly followed by a bells ringing to mark the beginning of street Morris dancing.

The Puritans and Oliver Cromwell described maypole dancing as a "heathenish vanity". They passed legislation in opposition to it in 1660.

Charles II, or the "Merry Monarch", brought back the tradition by erecting a gigantic 40 metre pole on London's Strand, and having it remain there for almost 50 years.

One quite unique tradition that is frequently associated with the date includes St Andrews students rushing nude into the sea at sunrise on the 1st May out of excitement for the season's change.

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