May Day: An ancient celebration with pagan roots
The 1st May is an ancient Northern Hemisphere festival, now known as ‘May Day’, which traditionally marked the return of spring. It is believed that the celebrations originated in agricultural rituals intended to ensure fertility for crops, held by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Later developments included the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night. Today, many customs still mark this ancient festival, including the gathering of wildflowers and the setting up of a decorated May tree or Maypole, around which people dance.
The Festival of Flora
The Romans marked the occasion over two millennia ago with the Floralia, or Festival of Flora, a five-day ceremony to honour the Roman goddess of flowers. Flora was regarded as one of the most ancient goddesses of Roman religion, and was one of fifteen deities to have her own state-supported high priest, the flamen Florialis. A goddess of flowers, vegetation, and fertility, she received sacrifices in the sacred grove of the Arval Brothers, an archaic priesthood.
The Triumph of Flora by Tiepolo (ca. 1743), a scene based on Ovid's description of the Floralia. Image source: Wikipedia
Floralia was marked by dancing, the gathering of flowers, and the setting aside of white togas in favour of more colourful garments. It was also a time for the Ludi Florales (six-day games), which was paid for by fines collected when public lands were encroached upon. Cicero mentions his role in organizing games for Flora when he was aedile in 69 BC.
The festival of Flora opened with theatrical performances, and concluded with competitive events and spectacles at the Circus and a sacrifice to Flora. In 30 AD, the entertainments at the Floralia presented under the emperor Galba featured a tightrope-walking elephant. The festival was eventually declared a Roman holiday by Julius Caesar and revellers are said to have worn garlands of fresh flowers while scattering seeds to promote agricultural bounty.
The Celtic Beltane
Beltane, which means “the return of the sun”, is the Gaelic May Day festival. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Celts believed the sun was held prisoner during winter months only to be released each spring to rule the summer sky, and they celebrated this mythic release with a fire ceremonies and a huge feast to mark the occasion. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth.
Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. People and their cattle would walk around the bonfire and sometimes leap over flames or embers.
The Beltane fire festival. Photo source.
As Europe became Christianized, pagan holidays lost their religious character and either changed into popular secular celebrations, as with May Day, or were merged with or replaced by new Christian holidays. The only significant Christianization of May day is localised to Germany where it is one of many historic days that were used to celebrate St. Walpurga (the saint credited with bringing Christianity to Germany).
The German Walpurgis
In Germany, Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht), the night from 30 April to 1 May, is when witches are reputed to hold a large celebration on the Brocken and await the arrival of spring. The night is so called because it is the eve of the feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th-century abbess in Germany. Local variants of Walpurgis Night are observed across Europe in the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland and Estonia.
On Walpurgis Night, it is believed that witches await the arrival of the spring. Image source.
Maypole dancing continues to be one of the most popular May Day customs in Europe. Participants dance around a wooden Maypole, holding colourful ribbons that become decoratively intertwined. The dancers then change direction and repeat the steps in reverse, causing the ribbons to unwind. This is said to symbolize the lengthening of the days as summer begins.
Featured image: Traditional Maypole dancing. Photo source.
May Day - Encyclopedia Britannica
Beltane and May Day Customs – The Llewellyn Journal
A history of May Day – libcom.org