May Day (May 1)
Although May Day is a traditional spring festival, it also marks an astronomical division, and is one of four cross-quarter days (a day that occurs midway between an equinox and solstice) during each year. May Day is the cross-quarter day that falls between the March equinox and the June solstice, and to the ancients, represented the waxing power of the sun that generates the longer, warmer days of spring and produces an increase in fertility. Additional yearly cross-quarter days include Groundhog Day on February 2, Lammas on August 1, and Halloween on October 31.
Sources indicate that “May Day” observances as celebrations of the coming of spring are a part of the traditions of several cultures and can be traced back to the Romans, Celts, and Saxons. During the Roman Republic, the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, or the Floralia was held on April 27. The Celts observed May 1 as the Gaelic Beltane, or the “day of fire’’ (Bel was the Celtic god of the sun) and began May Day festivities on the eve of April 30 by playing games and feasting to celebrate the passing of winter and the return of the sun and fertility to the soil. The iconic maypole was handed down from the Anglo-Saxon customs that were practiced during “Primilci-mōnab” (the Old English name for the month of May, translated as “Month of Three Milkings”). Additional Northern Hemispheric traditions in multiple countries include dancing around the maypole, the crowning of the Queen of May, and the giving of anonymous “May baskets” (small baskets of sweets and/or flowers).
The myths of Diana, the goddess of the hunt, and the horned god, Herne, were appropriated by the common people during the Middle Ages to continue May Day observances under ban by the Roman Catholic Church, and included the use of animal masks and costumes to disguise May Day revelers as they paraded through village streets shouting, chanting, singing, and blowing hunting horns, giving rise to the observance of Walpurgisnacht (“night of witches”) that is still celebrated in rural regions of Germany today (especially in the Harz Mountains). The Walpurgisnacht celebrations are held the night before May Day and traditionally include lighting bonfires and wrapping a Maibaum (maypole).
The adoption of a goddess and god of the hunt was also included in May Day observances in the British Isles during the Middle Ages, but over time, became metamorphosed into fertility deities of the crops and fields. Diana evolved into the Queen of May, and Herne became Robin Goodfellow (the Green Man). As seasonal representations, the Queen reflected the life of the fields and Robin became a manifestation of the hunting crafts of the woods—both were inextricably intertwined for fertile sustenance in the May Day celebrations and were allegorically illustrated by the traditional wrapping of the maypole.
Although the May Day celebrations were outlawed in the 1600s, the traditions have carried on until the present day and have been appropriated and redesigned by modern cultures and organizations to represent and serve multi-faceted purposes, ranging from social improvements to political statements, as well as to preserve significant historical contributions to the international development of our interrelated global story.
For descriptions of May Day celebrations in multiple countries see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_Day