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The Celebration of May Day

Celebrating the end of winter, May 1st is a time for festivals, flowers and the traditional dance around the maypole.


Raising the Maypole by English artist Frederick Goodall 1855 (Wikimedia commons)

Origins of May celebrations date back to Roman times, honoring Flora the Roman goddess of flowers. Celebrations of the change of seasons and the coming summer existed throughout Europe. As local traditions developed they spoke to the same theme, a celebration of a season of growth and fertility, planting of crops, pasturing of cattle, etc. Recognition of the new season was celebrated with food, dance, music, flowers, maypoles, and the crowning of a May Queen. These celebrations met with resistance from Protestant and Puritan leaders who termed them pagan and banned the celebrations. As time passed these May celebrations evolved from religious to more secular celebrations.

Maypole dance 1915 (Library of Congress)

Speculation as to the origin of the maypole includes its representation of the earth’s axis or from Germanic culture as a reverence for trees. The Maypole evolved over time from a tree with its lower branches removed (leaving a few at the top) to a pole, both being decorated with flowers and ribbons. Participants hold the ribbons as they perform a dance weaving the ribbons around the pole.


In America, European origins and traditions were lost due to the Puritan belief that May Day was a pagan celebration therefore it was not celebrated here to the extent it was in Europe. The tradition of the maypole, however, became part of school celebrations of May Day often accompanied by plays, music, readings, etc. Today maypoles may also be seen at medieval festivals such as the New York Renaissance Fair. https://renfair.com/ny/learn-more-about-maypole/


In many European countries today, May Day is celebrated as a holiday with community events and festivals drawing on local traditions. For information on these local origins and traditions see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_Day


May Day & International Worker's Day

In many countries May Day is also known as International Workers’ Day, Workers’ Day or Labour Day. This day is observed to honor the contributions of laborers and the working class, which is promoted by the International Labour Movement. It evolved to commemorate the Haymarket affair, which occurred in Chicago on May 4, 1886. for more information on its origins and that of Labor Day in the United States see

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Workers%27_Day


May Baskets

Another tradition of May Day from the 19th century is that of the May basket, a bouquet of flowers left anonymously at the home of a neighbor, friend or sweetheart. Traditionally children would leave a basket filled with fresh flowers or other treats hanging on the doorknob of a home. Often a suitor or sweetheart would leave a basket for his or her intended. Tradition says that if the gift giver is spotted the recipient gets to steal a kiss.


Make a simple May Basket by forming a cone from a piece of colored or decorative paper, or a paper plate. Decorate with paper doilies, crayons, stickers, etc. Attach ribbon, paper, or yarn for a handle. Get creative. Instead of a paper cone recycle a basket, decorate a tin can, small box or other container. Add real or silk flowers or create your own paper or ribbon flowers or fill with candy or baked goods.

May Basket ideas: http://aboutfamilycrafts.com/12-may-day-baskets-you-can-make/

A Forgotten Tradition: https://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/04/30/402817821/a-forgotten-tradition-may-basket-day

Let’s bring back the May Basket, Austin, TX https://news.yahoo.com/may-day-let-bring-back-152350642.html


May Day Focuses on Child Health

In 1924 President Coolidge designated May 1st as the first national May Day Child Health celebration. The American Child Health Association published a plan book “to give individuals, schools and communities concrete suggestions for centering thought on May Day on the serious purpose of child health and child health education." A companion booklet was also published with May Day related materials, poems, stories, dances, etc.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1354856/pdf/amjphealth00045-0001a.pdf


May Day from the Local Newspapers


Port Jefferson Echo May 13, 1926

Port Jefferson Echo. July 10, 1924

Port Jefferson Echo May 15, 1930.

Note the Maypole dance by the 3rd grade and the focus on health in the May Day activities described above.


For more information on May Day history, traditions and lore check out

The Old Farmer’s Almanac https://www.almanac.com/content/what-may-day

Britannica Kids https://kids.britannica.com/kids/article/May-Day/390805


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