Window on UK Culture

What is Mayday?


Not to be confused with the more recent Mayday or Labour Day as it better known around the world, the original Mayday has a long and notable history and like many ancient festivals dates back thousands of years before Christ.


Why was May important in ancient Britian?


For the Druids of ancient Britain, May 1st was the second most important holiday of the year when the festival of Beltane held. It was thought that this day divides the year in half. The other half was ended with the festival of Samhain on November 1st. 

How did they celebrate Mayday?


In those days the May Day custom was to light huge bonfires, the fire itself was thought to lend life to the burgeoning springtime sun. Cattle were driven through the fire to purify them. Men, with their sweethearts, passed through the smoke for good luck.

Where did the May flowers tradition come from?


The beginning of May was also a big festival for the Romans. It was devoted to the worship of Flora, the goddess of flowers. It was in her honor that a five day celebration, called the Floralia, was held. The festival would start from April 28th and end on May 2nd. When the Romans conquered Britain, they introduced the rituals of the Floralia festival. Gradually the rituals of the Floralia were added to those of the Beltane and many of today's Mayday customs bear a stark similarity to those combined traditions.

What about Maypoles?


By the Middle Ages every English village had its Maypole, originally a symbol of fertility. The Maypoles were of all sizes and villages would vie with each other to show who could produce the tallest. Maypoles in those days were sometimes over 100 feet tall and often a permanent fixture in the village whereas today they are much shorter, around 25 feet and are only erected for May Day.  Young men and women would dance round the pole each holding vines which would become entwined. The Maypole tradition was outlawed by the Puritan Parliament in 1644 because of its pagan origins but returned under Charles II in 1660, though by then the elements elements had disappeared. By the 19th century, the Victorians had turned the Maypole and May Day into a celebration of merriment and innocence with young girls dressed in white with posies in their hair dancing round the pole and the tree vines gave way to colorful ribbons.