May Day

From New World Encyclopedia
May Day
May Day
Observed by Many countries
Type Religious, cultural
Date May 1
Celebrations Maypole, Morris dancing, May Queen, May baskets

May Day occurs on May 1 and refers to any of several public holidays. As a day of celebration the holiday has ancient origins and relates to many customs that have survived into modern times. Many of these customs are due to May Day being a cross-quarter day, meaning that (in the Northern Hemisphere, where it is almost exclusively celebrated), it falls approximately halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. May Day has its origins in pagan pre-Christian festivals related to agriculture and fertility, and its celebration involved joy and light-hearted fun in the outdoors as the warmer weather of spring and summer began.

Today, May Day is celebrated in several European nations and the United States, in cultural expressions ranging from Maypole dancing to foot races, May Baskets, singing, and festivals. Alternatively, in many countries, May Day is synonymous with International Workers' Day, or Labour Day, which celebrates the social and economic achievements of the labor movement. Thus, May Day has acquired a second meaning, quite different from the original one which stemmed from spiritual roots and connections to nature; the later one coming from secular efforts to improve human society through struggle and conflict.

Traditional May Day celebrations

May Day marks the end of the winter half of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and it has traditionally been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations, regardless of the locally prevalent political or religious establishment.

As Europe became Christianized, pagan holidays lost their religious character and either changed into popular secular celebrations, as with May Day, or were replaced by new Christian holidays as with Christmas, Easter, and All Saint's Day. In the start of the twenty-first century, many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day again as a pagan religious festival.


Did you know?
In Europe, May Day originated as a pagan holiday celebrating the beginning of summer

May Day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of Spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer. Such early celebrations were connected to agriculture and involved gathering flowers and greenery, which were used as decorations. Probably the meaning of the celebrations was to ensure fertility for the crops, livestock, and also the human community.

A large crowd, mostly students in typical Swedish white student caps, participating in the traditional Walpurgis Night celebration with song outside the Castle in Uppsala. The silhouette of the cathedral towers may be seen in the background. To the right are banners and standards of the student nations. Image from c. 1920.

Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht in German and Dutch, Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish) is a traditional religious holiday, celebrated on April 30 or May 1 by Pagans in large parts of Central and Northern Europe.

The festival has become connected to Saint Walpurga, born in Devon about 710. An English missionary to the Frankish Empire, she was canonized on May 1, c. 870, by Pope Adrian II. Due to her holy day falling on the same day, her name became associated with the May Day celebrations. Walpurga was honored in the same way that Vikings had celebrated spring, and as they spread throughout Europe the two dates became mixed together and created the Walpurgis Night celebration, recognized by Pagans and Roman Catholics alike.

May Day is also associated with the Celtic Beltane. Since pre-Christian indigenous celebrations were eventually banned or Christianized as Christianity spread in Europe, a more secular version of the holiday continued to be observed in the schools and churches of Europe well into the twentieth century. In this form, May Day became best known for its tradition of dancing the Maypole and crowning of the Queen of the May. Today, various Neopagan groups celebrate reconstructed (to varying degrees) versions of these customs on May 1.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is observed as Mary's month, and in these circles May Day is usually a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In this connection, in works of art, school skits, and so forth, Mary's head will often be adorned with flowers. Fading in popularity since the late-twentieth century is the giving of "May baskets," small baskets of sweets and/or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbors' doorsteps.[1]

United Kingdom


Morris dancing on May Day in Oxford, England 2004.
The May Queen of New Westminer's annual May Day c. 1887.
Villagers and Morris-men dancing beside the Maypole on Ickwell Green, Bedfordshire at dawn on May 1, 2005

May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. It is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen, and celebrations involving a Maypole, around which traditional dancers circle with ribbons. Much of this tradition derives from the pagan Anglo-Saxon customs held during Þrimilci-mōnaþ (the Old English name for the month of May meaning Month of Three Milkings).[2]

With Christianity came agricultural feasts such as Plough Sunday (the first Sunday in January), Rogationtide, Harvest Festival, and May Day. Since May 1 is the Feast of Saint Philip and Saint James, they became the patron saints of workers. Seeding has been completed by this date and it was convenient to give farm laborers a day off.

The May Day Bank Holiday was traditionally the only one to affect the state school calendar, although new arrangements in some areas to even out the length of school terms mean that the Good Friday and Easter Monday Bank Holidays, which vary from year to year, may also fall during term time.

In Oxford, it is traditional for revelers to gather below Magdalen College tower to listen to the college's choir for what is called May Morning. It is then thought to be traditional for students to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell. However, the bridge in now closed on May 1, to prevent people from jumping, as the water under the bridge is only two-feet deep causing injuies.[3]

Maydayrun (or "May Day Run") is an annual event held in England involving thousands of motorbikes taking a 55-mile trip from London (Locksbottom) to the Hastings seafront, East Sussex. The event has has grown in interest around the country, both commercially and publicly, although the event is not officially organized; the police only manage the traffic.

An example of more traditional May Day festivities is still witnessed in Whitstable, Kent where the Jack in the Green festival was revived in 1976 and continues to lead an annual procession of Morris dancers through the town on the May Bank Holiday. A Jack in the Green wears a large, foliage-covered, garland-like framework, usually pyramidal or conical in shape, which completely covers their body from head to foot. A traditional Sweeps Festival is performed over the May bank holiday in Rochester, Kent where the Jack in the Green is woken at dawn on May 1, by Morris dancers. A separate revival occurred in Hastings in 1983 and has become a major event in the town calendar.


An original Mayhorn from the 1930s

The West Cornwall May Day celebrations are an example of folk practices associated with the coming of spring. Prior to the twentieth century it was common for young residents of the towns of Penzance and St Ives and other nearby settlements to conduct their own festivities. For these festivals it was usual to make "May Horns" usually fashioned from tin cans and "May Whistles" made from small branches of the sycamore tree.

Kingsand, Cawsand, and Millbrook in Cornwall celebrate Black Prince Day on the May Day bank holiday. A model of the ship The Black Prince is covered in flowers and is taken in procession from the Quay at Millbrook to the beach at Cawsand where it is cast adrift. The houses in the villages are decorated with flowers and people traditionally wear red and white clothes. There are further celebrations in Cawsand Square with Morris dancing and Maypole dancing.

Padstow in Cornwall is internationally famous for its traditional 'Obby 'Oss day (dialect for Hobby Horse). Held annually on May Day it largely dates back to the Celtic Beltane celebrating the coming of Summer. The festival itself starts at midnight on May 1st with unaccompanied singing around the town starting at the Golden Lion Inn. By the morning, the town is dressed with greenery, flowers, and flags, with the focus being the maypole.

The Old 'Oss capturing a passing maiden during the Mayday festival.

The climax arrives when two groups of dancers dancers process through the town, one of each team wearing a stylized recreation of an "'Oss" (horse). Accompanied by drums and accordions and led by acolytes known as "Teasers," each 'Oss is adorned by a gruesome mask and black frame-hung cape under which they try to catch young maidens as they pass through the town.

This is believed to be one of the oldest fertility rites in the UK; revelers dance with the Oss through the streets of the town and even through the private gardens of the citizens, accompanied by accordion players and followers dressed in white with red or blue sashes who sing the traditional "May Day" song. The whole town is decorated with springtime greenery, and every year thousands of onlookers attend.


Students gather on Castle Sands, St Andrews for the May dip in 2007

Saint Andrews has a tradition whereby some of the students gather on the beach late on April 30 and run into the North Sea at sunrise on May 1, occasionally naked. This is accompanied by torchlit processions and much elated celebration.

Both Edinburgh and Glasgow organize Mayday festivals and rallies. In Edinburgh, the Beltane Fire Festival is held on the evening of May 1 eve and into the early hours of May Day on the city's Calton Hill.



On May 1, 1561, French King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. He decided to offer a lily of the valley each year to the ladies of the court. At the beginning of the twentieth century, it became custom on the First of May to give a sprig of lily of the valley, a symbol of springtime. The government permits individuals and workers' organizations to sell them free of taxation. It is also traditional for the lady receiving the spray of lily of the valley to give a kiss in return.


In rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of Pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the wrapping of maypoles. Young people use this opportunity to party with the motto Tanz in den Mai! ("Dance into May!"), while the day itself is used by many families to enjoy some fresh air and outdoor activities.

In the Rhineland, a region in the western part of Germany, May 1 is also celebrated by the overnight delivery of a tree covered in streamers to the house of a girl. The tree is typically from a love interest, though a tree wrapped only in white streamers is a sign of dislike. On leap years, it is the responsibility of the girls to place the maypole, though the young men are still allowed and encouraged to do so.

United States

May Day festivities at National Park Seminary in Maryland, 1907.

May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of North America. The Puritans, however, deemed the festivities pagan and immoral, banning May Day observance in New England. In some parts of the United States May Baskets are made. These baskets are small and usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone's doorstep. The basket giver rings the bell and runs away. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver. If they succeed in catching the person, a kiss is to be exchanged.

In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre May Day Parade, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. vary greatly from region to region. Among the largest is the May Day Parade and Pageant created by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, an event that has happened every year since 1974 in Minneapolis, attracting some 35,000 people.[4]


In Hawaii, May Day is also known as Lei Day, and is normally set aside as a day to celebrate island culture in general and native Hawaiian culture in particular. It was invented by a poet and a local newspaper columnist in the 1920s, and has since been adopted by state and local government as well as by the residents, and has taken on a sense of general spring celebration. Leonard "Red" and Ruth Hawk composed May Day is Lei Day in Hawai'i, the traditional holiday song. Originally it was a contemporary fox trot, later rearranged as the Hawaiian hula song performed today.

International Workers' Day

Approximately 700,000 people at a May Day concert in Rome.[5]

May Day can also refer to various labor celebrations conducted on May 1 that commemorate the fight for the eight-hour day. May Day in this regard is called International Workers' Day, or Labour Day.

The idea for a "workers holiday" began in Australia in 1856. With the idea having spread around the world, the choice of the May first date became a commemoration by the Second International for the people involved in the Haymarket affair of 1886.[6]

The Haymarket affair occurred during the course of a three-day general strike in Chicago that involved common laborers, artisans, merchants, and immigrants.[7] Following an incident in which police opened fire and killed four strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. plant, a rally was called for the following day at Haymarket Square. The event remained peaceful, yet towards the end of the rally, as police moved in to disperse the event, an unknown assailant threw a bomb into the crowd of police. The bomb and resulting riot left at least a dozen people dead, including seven policemen.[8] A sensational show trial ensued which led to the eventual public hanging of four anarchists.[9] This incident was a source of outrage around the globe. In the following years, memory of the "Haymarket martyrs" was remembered with various May Day job actions and demonstrations.[10]

May Day has thus become an international celebration of the social and economic achievements of the labor movement. People often use May Day as a day for political protest, such as the million people who demonstrated against far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in France,[11] or as a day for protest against government actions, such as pro-immigrant rallies across the United States.[12]

Although May Day received its inspiration from the United States, the U.S. Congress designated May 1 as Loyalty Day on July 18, 1958 (Public Law 85-529). Following the passage of this law, President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed May 1, 1959 the first official observance of Loyalty Day, defined in 36 U.S.C. § 115 as "a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom."[13] The day designated as Labor Day in the United States traditionally occurs on the first Monday in September.


  1. Brenda Hyde, Charming May Day Baskets, Old Fashioned Living, 2008.
  2. Beda Venerabilis, Caput XV:De mensibus Anglorum, De Temporum Ratione. Retrieved December 20, 2008.
  3. BBC, Jumpers flout May Day bridge ban. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  4. Colleen J. Sheehy (ed.), Theatre of Wonder: 25 Years in the Heart of the Beast (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 79-89.
  5. La Repubblica, Concertone a Roma per 700mila I sindacati criticano il conduttore. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  6. Rosa Luxemburg, What Are the Origins of May Day? Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, tr. Dick Howard, Monthly Review Press, 1971 (original in Polish, Sprawa Robotnicza, 1894). Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  7. James Green, Death In the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America (Anchor, 2007, ISBN 1400033225), 163.
  8. Green, 10.
  9. Green, 231.
  10. Green, 305.
  11. Suzanne Daley, Anti-Le Pen Protests Draw a Million Into Streets of France, The New York Times, May 2, 2002. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  12. Teresa Watanabe and Anna Gorman, Business joins May Day reform cry in L.A., Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2008. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  13. U.S. Code Collection, § 115. Loyalty Day, Cornell University Law School. Retrieved January 9, 2009.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Aveni, Anthony. The Book of the Year: A Brief History of Our Seasonal Holidays. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0195150247.
  • Green, James. Death In the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America. Anchor, 2007. ISBN 1400033225.
  • Joshua, Essaka. The Romantics and the May Day Tradition. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. ISBN 978-0754657743.
  • Kydd, Johnnie Shand. May Day. London: White Cube, 2004. ISBN 978-0954650124.
  • Remnick, David. Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire. New York: Random House, 1993. ISBN 978-0679423768.
  • Smolan, Rick, and Cohen, David. A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union. New York: Collins Publishers, 1987. ISBN 978-0002179690.

External links

All links retrieved November 8, 2022.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.