The Origins Of May Day I Oxford Open Learning

    May Day.

    The Origins Of May Day

    For many of us, the 1st of May, or May Day, means a long bank holiday weekend with a chance for a quick getaway. May Day, however has associations drawn from the Pagan rejoicing of spring and fertility and is believed to be traced back to Roman origins, making it one of the oldest holidays still celebrated. The day has had many different meanings over the ages, both culturally and politically, and is still celebrated in many different countries. It is also worth noting that 1st May marks a significant event in modern history; International Workers Day (sometimes known as labour day) which emerged from the struggles of the 19th century labour movement.

    May Day History

    May Day is thought to have originated the Roman festival Floralia, an event dedicated to the goddess Flora that took place around the beginning of May and involved athletic games and theatrical performances to celebrate the beginning of spring.

    Celtic societies also celebrated this day between the summer solstice and the spring equinox as an astronomical event, particularly in one of their four major festivals, Beltane. During this festival, cattle were driven out to pasture to graze on the rich, fertile land, bonfires were lit and homes decorated with flowers in celebration.

    May Day Celebrations

    In medieval Europe, May Day was celebrated with other, similarly vibrant festivals. One of the most iconic and well-known elements of these celebrations was around the maypole. This was a large wooden pole sourced from a nearby wood that was adorned with colourful flowers and ribbons, and villagers dressed in their fine clothes would dance around it. A May Queen and sometimes a May King were selected from the community to lead the festivities and preside over the events. They themselves were chosen to represent the spirit of spring and were often youthful individuals. Villagers would gather flowers and green branches to decorate their homes and village squares to invoke a good crop harvest. The dance around the maypole is one tradition that has still not entirely died out, in fact…

    Enduring Heritage

    Today, these traditional activities are kept alive through modern day celebrations where Morris dancers, the adorning of costumes, folklore enactments, fire festivals, parades and live music also take place. For those that observe the event, it is a chance for communities to come together in unity and festivity and to honour nature and the changing of the seasons.


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