May Day Traditions


May Day is celebrated on 1st May and traditionally marks the start of summer in the UK, even though the season officially begins in June. On the first day of May people get together to celebrate the warmer weather and to enjoy the 3-day Bank Holiday weekend.

The Origins Of May Day

May Day celebrations are believed to date back over 2000 years. In ancient Roman times the celebration of the start of summer was known as the festival of Flora, in honour of the goddess of fruit and flowers.

The customs and traditions of May Day, in the UK, have their roots firmly embedded in the pagan festivals that celebrate spring and fertility, and the welcoming of summer. Beltane (or the Fire of Bel), as the pagan festival is known, is usually celebrated with bonfires, rituals and feasting.

May Day in Ireland and Scotland was originally held between the spring equinox, at the end of March, and the summer solstice in June. The annual celebration is now combined into a one-day event. The present day, secular festival national holiday was introduced in 1978 by the Labour government.

May 1st is also known as International Workers Day around the world.

Typical May Day Celebrations

May Day is often associated with dancing around the maypole, Morris dancing and the crowning of the May Queen. The Green Man, who embodies the spirit of spring, is also likely to put in an appearance.

The maypole is a quaint custom with pagan traditions. During the ancient pagan festivities young trees would be cut down and stuck into the ground so that dancing rituals could be performed around them. Dancing around the colourful ribbon decorated maypole symbolises the celebration of new life.

Getting Involved

The Beltane Fire Festival, in Edinburgh, marks the traditional pagan festival and is usually held around the May Day bank holiday weekend. The event features dancing and fire displays, and typically welcomes over 12,000 people.

In Padstow, Cornwall, the ‘Obb’ Oss Day of Festivities includes music and dancing in the streets. The festival is a celebration of colour and everyone gets involved in decorating the town. Over 30,000 visitors come to see the traditional folklore Hobby Horse caricature rampage through the town.

Rochester, in Kent, hosts the annual Sweeps’ festival on May Day. This commemorates the customary one-day holiday that chimney sweeps were once allowed to enjoy. The festival features traditional Morris dancing, folk music and open-air performances.

Many villages and towns host annual May Day attractions for the whole family to enjoy. Join a May Day parade, or celebrate in traditional pagan ritual style with friends and family.

Unusual May Day Facts

In 1660 Oliver Cromwell passed legislation against maypole dancing, because he considered it to be “heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition”.

King Charles II (known as the Merry Monarch) reinstated the custom of fun and merriment. He erected a 40-metre high maypole on the Strand in London. The maypole remained in place for almost 50 years.

Some villages in Warwickshire have maypoles that can be seen on the village green all year round.

The largest maypole in the UK can be found in Barwick, Yorkshire. It measures 30 metres in height.

On May Day, it is customary for many students at the University of St Andrews to get into the spirit, by rushing naked into the sea at sunrise.

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