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Some call this May Day. Depending on where you live, it could be International Workers’ Day or Labour Day. May 1 is a national holiday in more than 80 countries and celebrated unofficially in many other countries. Not many people are celebrating Beltane, so let’s mark that festival here.

Beltane is an ancient Celtic festival which came into English from the Gaelic word bealltainn which literally means “May First.”

Traditionally large bonfires would be lit to celebrate this transition from spring to summer and the fertility of all things. Cattle were driven through the Beltane bonfires for purification and fertility.

The annual Beltane Fire Festival held in Edinburgh, Scotland is the prime modern example.

Today, the neo-pagan community, often associated with the art of fire dancing, have also embraced the Beltane festivities.

In Wales, Creiddylad was a character connected with this festival and 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 mouton ash or rowan tree. Twigs and branches of the rowan were, and still are, used as protection against evil in this part of the world.

May Day is another name often given to this day. That derives from the Greek goddess Maia, the most important of the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) and the mother of Hermes. From her, we get the name of this month. The Romans called her Maius, goddess of Summer, and honored her during Ambarvalia.

A maypole is a tall wooden pole erected as a part of various European folk festivals, around which a maypole dance often takes place. The festivals may occur on May Day or Pentecost (Whitsun), although in some countries it is instead erected at Midsummer.

May Day celebrations were continued by early European settlers to the American continent with May baskets filled with flowers or treats left secretly at someone’s doorstep. If the receiver catches the fleeing giver, a kiss is exchanged.

 

May Day basket

May Day basket

 

So, how did you celebrate May Day yesterday? What? You didn’t celebrate? You didn’t even know it was a day to celebrate something?

You could have celebrated Hawaiian history and culture with Lei Day in Hawaii.

In Minneapolis, there was a big parade and pageant staged by the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre that has been going on since 1975 and attracts about 35,000 people every year.

May Day, the first of May, is actually full of holidays.  Many countries celebrate Labor Day on that day, which dates back to the labor movement in the United States more than a hundred years ago.

Back in 1886, unions around the country went on strike. They were protesting to get an eight-hour workday. Many of the strike organizers were really communists, socialists and anarchists and so May Day became associated with communism. It was a big national holiday in the Soviet Union.

President Eisenhower tried to wrest the day back during the anti-communist Cold War days and it was rebranded Law Day and Loyalty Day.

The first of May is a celebration of spring and fertility in places like Egypt and India.

In Germany, May first was the date of a pagan festival that Christians flipped into the feast day of St. Walpurgis. The night before — Walpurgisnacht — is still celebrated in parts of rural Germany as a kind of Valentine’s Day.

In medieval England, you would gather flowers to “bring in the May.” You’ve heard of the maypole bedecked with garlands? It’s also the date of Beltane, the ancient Celtic festival. The Gaelic word bealltainn means “May First” and the day was a celebration of the start of summer often accompanied by bonfires. It has seen some revival by neo-pagans.

Shooting back to pre-Christian Rome, it was the time of the festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers.

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