What is May Day?

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Girl with flowers
Giving flowers is a popular May Day tradition
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Find out the history of May Day.

I remember celebrating May Day when I was growing up. My sisters and I would make little construction paper baskets, fill them with whatever flowering weeds we could find, and leave them hanging on our neighbors' doorknobs. But I don't remember asking, "What is May Day?"

Pagan Roots

Like many of our seasonal festivals, May Day has its roots in various Celtic and pagan festivals that celebrated the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The month of May is named after Maia, the goddess of the spring.

Many of our May Day symbols come from the Celtic festival of Beltane. Beltane was a festival that celebrated the fertility of the gods. Offerings sometimes included animal or human sacrifice. Gifts were offered in the hope that pleasing the gods would lead to fertility for the people and their livestock. The Maypole, a tall pole festooned with colored ribbons, was a part of Beltane. The dancers would weave in and out around the Maypole, each holding ribbons that would be intertwined by the time the dance ended.

The Germanic people celebrated Walpurgis Night, the eve of the first of May. Though the festival was named after a Christian saint, the celebrations were pagan in origin tradition held that it was a night for witches to herald the arrival of spring and the return of the light. Bonfires were lit to welcome the new season.

Christian Influences

When Europe became Christianized, the Church sought to convert many of the pagan festivals and give them a Christian meaning. May 1st became the Celebration of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Early Americans celebrated May Day with Maypole dancing and baskets of flowers as a way to welcome spring, without the pagan influences.

Modern Celebrations

Today, many countries outside of the United States celebrate May 1st as International Workers' Day, similar to the U.S.'s Labor Day, which is celebrated in September. International Workers' Day celebrations often include parades and demonstrations by unions and labor organizations.

In the United States, there has been a recent renewal of the pagan roots behind May Day Beltane festivals are held in many areas. These festivals are celebrated with Maypole dancing, bonfires, and other traditions handed down through the ages though without the animal and human sacrifice.

When May comes around this year, my kids and I will be celebrating the coming of spring, and maybe our neighbors will find baskets on their doorsteps. And when my kids ask, "What is May Day?" I will have an answer.

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