May Day’s Weird and Wonderful Pagan Roots
May 1st is an ancient Northern Hemisphere festival, now known as ‘May Day’, which traditionally marked the return of summer. 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.
‘May Day Central Park’ (1901) by Maurice Prendergast. (Public Domain)
The Festival of Flora: May Day for the Roman Crowd
The Romans marked the occasion over two millennia ago with the Floralia, or Festival of Flora, a five-day ceremony to honor the Roman goddess of flowers. Flora was regarded as one of the most ancient goddesses of Roman religion, and was one of 15 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.
This pagan holiday began in Rome in 240 or 238 BC with the hopes of pleasing the goddess Flora into protecting flowers – probably with a focus on the blossoms of fruit-bearing plants. Floralia was forgotten for a time, but re-instated in 173 BC when bad weather threatened and the Senate believed it was necessary to please Flora and request her protection once again.
The Triumph of Flora by Tiepolo (ca. 1743), a scene based on Ovid's description of the Floralia. (Public Domain)
The Floralia festival was marked by dancing, the gathering of flowers, and the setting aside of white togas in favor of more colorful garments. It was also a time for the Ludi Florales (six days of 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 (a Roman magistrate in charge of maintaining public buildings) in 69 BC.
The festival of Flora opened with theatrical performances, which often included mimes, naked actresses, and prostitutes, and it concluded with competitive events and spectacles at the Circus and a sacrifice to Flora. Sometimes the events were very unique, such as in 30 AD, when the entertainment 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 holiday revelers are said to have worn garlands of fresh flowers while scattering seeds to promote agricultural bounty. This festival began in April, the month of Venus, the goddess of Love, but ran until early May. The official dates were given from April 28 to May 3. Many people see a connection between this spring festival and the later May Day festival. One way the Floralia has lived on is with the wreaths people continue to wear in May Day celebrations.
‘Portrait of a Girl with Wreath of Roses in her Hair and Leopard Skin’ (1868) by Eugen Feliz. (Public Domain)
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. Its festivities begand on the night before May 1st. It fell out of practice in most areas around the 19th century, but was resurrected in 1988 at one of the most popular Beltane celebrations, the annual fire festival which takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The ancient 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 fire ceremonies and a huge feast to mark the occasion. In this Celtic take on May Day, rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops, and people, and to encourage growth. Beltane was a time to rejoice in the return of the land’s fertility and it was also the time when livestock would be out to pasture. It was a key moment in the Pagan Wheel of the Year.
Beltane, which roughly translates as ‘bright fire’, was traditionally a time when 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.
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 localized 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.
Walpurgis Night – A Germanic Christian May Day
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.
The only relation Saint Walpurga has to the date is that May 1 was the day when her remains were transferred to the Church of the Holy Cross at Eichstätt around 870 AD. Even though the holiday got its name from the saint, it is better described as a spring celebration with striking similarities to Halloween.
Some common events associated with the day are dressing up in costumes and making loud noises – activities people used to do to try to keep witches away. Other methods used to ward off the evil forces out on that night were hanging blessed sprigs of foliage from houses or barns, or leaving offerings of bread with butter and honey (known as ‘ankenschnitt’) for phantom hounds . Bonfires are also traditional to Walpurgis Night and were believed to serve a similar purpose, though they harken back to the pagan practices of light returning around the Spring Equinox as well.
A large Walpurgis Night celebration in Heidelberg. (Andreas Fink/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
Although Saint Walpurga is unique to Germany, local variants of Walpurgis Night spread from that country and are observed across Europe in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, and Estonia.
In Finland, for example, Walpurgis Night is known also as Vappu, and it is one of the country’s most important holidays. Although it was initially celebrated by the upper class, during the late 19th century it became popular amongst university students. Today, Walpurgis Night is celebrated by all segments of both Finnish and Swedish societies.
The Maypole– A Traditional May Day Symbol
Maypole dancing continues to be one of the most popular May Day customs in Europe. No one can say for certain how Maypoles came to be, but they may have been inspired by Norse beliefs in the world tree, Yggdrasil, or Germanic pagan reverence for trees. There is also the less-popular suggestion that Maypoles are adopted as phallic symbols. Either way, the practice became especially popular in the British Isles around 1350-1400 AD and can be seen in some celebrations on May Day, Pentecost, or Midsummer.
Traditionally, participants dance around a wooden Maypole while holding colorful 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.
Dancing around the Maypole – a variation without ribbons. (Pixabay License)
Top Image: ‘A May Day celebration’ by William Powell Frith. Source: Public Domain
May Day - Encyclopedia Britannica
Beltane and May Day Customs – The Llewellyn Journal
A history of May Day – libcom.org