And So, It Is May Day Again

Bonfire at the Beltane Fire Festival 2019, Calton Hill, Edinburgh. The reunited May Queen and Green Man face the fire, while dancers raise their arms to heaven.
Image by Nyri0, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

You made it through another Walpurgis Eve and now it is May Day.  The name derives from the Greek goddess Maia, the most important of the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) and the mother of Hermes. Her name became the name for this month. The Romans called her Maius, goddess of Summer, and honored her during Ambarvalia.

Will you celebrate today? You might have a bonfire or a Maypole to dance around, move your cattle to summer pasture, decorate your home with flowers (or put a basket secretly at someone’s door), protect yourself from evil witchcraft, or just rest and have an early Labor Day.

May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. The Walpurgis Night celebrations occurred in the Germanic countries.

May Day celebrations throughout Europe eventually traveled to the New World and so Maypole dances and May baskets filled with flowers or treats might be left secretly at someone’s doorstep. If the receiver of a basket catches the giver, a kiss is exchanged.

May Day basket
Did you catch anyone putting a May Day basket at your door?

In the Roman Catholic tradition, May is observed as Mary’s month, and May Day is usually a celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary with works of art, school ceremonies etc. Statues of Mary will sometimes be adorned with a ring of flowers in a May crowning.

May first is also International Workers’ Day which is also known as May Day and is a celebration of the international labor movement. This celebration of laborers and the working classes that is promoted by the international labor movement.  May 1 was chosen as the date for International Workers’ Day by the Socialists and Communists of the Second International to commemorate the Haymarket affair in Chicago that occurred on May 4, 1886.

Because May 1 also marks a traditional European spring holiday, it is a national public holiday in more than 80 countries. In some of those countries, it is officially celebrated as Labor Day or some variation without the spring season associations.

Beltane is an ancient Celtic festival which came into English from the Gaelic word bealltainn which literally means “May First.” Depending on where you are living, today might seem like spring or summer, or autumn or winter in the Southern Hemisphere. This Gaelic May Day festival was usually held on the first of May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice.

Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh.

In some of the earliest Irish literature and Irish mythology, Beltane is associated with summer. (It is aslo known as Cétshamhain which means “first of summer.”) In America, we think the unoficial start of summer as Memorial Day at the end of May.
The traditions of May day included driving cattle to summer pastures. Special bonfires were made and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around or between bonfires, and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. Household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. Of course, there was feasting and drinking. Doors and windows, even livestock, might be decorated with May flowers, particularly yellow and red as they evoked fire.

Though much of the May Day, spring/summer and Beltane celebrations have stopped, the annual Beltane Fire Festival held in Edinburgh, Scotland is one modern example. The modern neo-pagan community also embrace fire dancing and rituals and festivities at this time.

In Wales, Creiddylad was a character connected with this festival and is often called the May Queen. The maypole and its dance is a remnant of these old festivities.

In Finland, May 1 was celebrated as Rowan Witch Day, a time of honoring the goddess Rauni, who was associated with the rowan tree. Twigs and branches of the rowan are used as protection against evil.

The Rowan Tree in the Celtic Zodiac is the sign for Jan. 21st to Feb. 17. In mythology, the first woman was made from the Rowan tree. These trees are believed to have magical properties that can protect from witchcraft and misfortune. Small crosses made from rowan twigs were carried for such protection. It is also known as the goddess tree and the red berries can be fermented into wine, spirits and ale.

Rowan tree art via Amazon

Published by

Ken Ronkowitz

A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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