May 1: spring festival of fertility
The festival of May Day (May 1st) has been widely celebrated for centuries, even millennia. Essentially a seasonal and floral festival concerned with the spring rebirth of vegetation after its death in winter, it is a festival of all things green in nature.
Throughout the pagan Europe of ancient times, May Day was very much a festival of fertility, often associated with singing, dancing and orgiastic abandon. Widely known in Celtic cultures as Beltaine (Beltane, or Bealtaine, the Irish name for the month of May), the wild rites were primarily designed to bring the fertile blessings of the ancient tree spirits to the community for the coming year.
Modern Neopagans also celebrate Beltaine and for Wiccans, as a cross-quarter day approximately half way between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, it is classed as a sabbat, one of the eight solar festivities of the sacred year.
The month of May is named after the ancient Roman goddess Maia, the wife of Mars and mother of Mercury. May Day (Kalends of May) was therefore associated with Maia, a manifestation of the Earth Goddess, and with Flora, goddess of flowers and spring. Flora’s festival, the Floralia, was held at the end of April or the beginning of May; it was a pagan festival welcoming the season of warmth and growth.
It was also connected with the Fontinalia, dedicated to the spirits of the reviving waters. Girls made garlands of corn or flowers to hang on doors, where they remained until replaced the following year, as in the Greek Thargelia and other earlier spring festivals. Houses, byres and stables were decorated with hawthorn, rowan, fir or birch, or other apotropaic (=”warding off evil”) greenery, to keep evil or unlucky powers at bay.
May Eve is situated directly opposite Halloween and is the end marker in the seasonal cycle which begins with Candle mas (Groundhog Day in the US). Children in some parts still play pranks on unsuspecting victims around midnight on April 30, similar to Halloween, and some even dress up as witches and evil spirits.
On May Day, earth spirits like fairies and elves (the ancient dead) would come out of the hills and barrows to dance on May Eve and well into the summer.
Flowers and garlands were also thrown into the waters and springs and wells were decorated, a custom which was carried over into Christian times in Europe, the wells being “dressed” with elaborate symbolic patterns, such as the cross, a dove, or texts from the Bible. The anciently accepted powers of healing waters were officially attributed to the saints, in place of the Celtic spirits of sacred wells and springs.
The custom of well-dressing still persists in parts of England and in Europe. Nearby bushes and trees are hung with ribbons or pieces of cloth, and a piece of a sick person’s clothing hung there effects a cure. More on Well Dressing.
The placing on May Eve of apotropaic garlands or boughs of hawthorn, rowan, etc., on doors was to protect humans and animals against the powers at large during the Celtic celebration of Beltane, the day of fire (Bel was the Celtic god of the sun). For the ancient Celts, it marked the beginning of summer, when they took their livestock up to the hills to graze again after being kept in the valleys over the winter. It was a time when fairies and witches were active and it also became known as Walpurgisnacht, the great German festival of witches and warlocks, celebrated in Goethe’s Faust.
Bonfires were a feature of the May celebrations from the earliest times. It is ironic that in Christian times, the burning of witches was also a feature of May Day and bonfires were lit to drive them off. Many of these fires were lit on the ancient pagan hill-tops and in some cases battles were fought for their possession, usually a contest between youths of neighboring parishes—youths representing the virile powers of spring growth—or there were mock battles between the powers of winter and summer, good and evil, in which winter was defeated.
Traditions in England varied in the counties, but gathering hawthorn or ‘may’ blossoms was a feature of the celebration. Women would dance around the may-pole singing songs, often taking the lead in courtship, quite a reversal, something of a throwback to very early times, when the Goddess was known to frown upon marriage. Couples would then pair off for the day (though not necessarily with the ones they would eventually marry). May Day was very much a celebration of reawakening fertility, and there were many customs and rituals designed to improve one’s chances in the battle of the sexes! For a view on this, see Gathering Nuts in May.
The Isle of Man
In the Isle of Man a battle is fought between the Queens of Winter and Summer with clubs of gorse. Summer is first captured, then released, and finally triumphs over Winter. Crosses made of rowan are placed in front of doors to repel evil or mischievous spirits; king cups are spread on the stable floor for the same purpose.
In Ireland the May Bush is placed over houses, byres and stables and bonfires are lit on May Eve. May Balls are made of gold and silver materials to represent the sun and moon. May Day is also a “gale” day, with the contracts of tenancy and rents and the hiring of servants; there were hiring fairs in earlier times. It is also the day for turning cattle out to pasture: this is traditional in other parts as well.
The King and Queen of May
May Eve was spent in the woods and on May Morning fresh green boughs were brought home, this being called “bringing the summer home”. The great May Tree, usually represented by the maypole, was decorated with ribbons, garlands and a crown, and brought in in procession, with singing and dancing. There were, and still are, sports, racing to the maypole, and contests, the latter being formerly of archery. Arthur’s Knights and Queen Guinevere went to the woods by Westminster; Henry VI and his Sheriffs and Aldermen of London dined in the Stepney woods and Henry VIII spent May Day with his Court in the woods at Greenwich.
May Day ceremonies formerly had a King and Queen of the May. The game of Robin Hood was played in May and Robin Hood is often described as the King of the May, with Maid Marian as his queen. The King and Queen also represented the Sun God (the Sky Father) and the Earth Mother, necessary to give birth to the powers of nature.
The orgies of earlier times and those reputed to take place in the woods on May Eve, encouraged these powers by sympathetic magic. The marriage of the King and Queen of May conformed to the ancient Sacred Marriage ritual which was widespread and involved not only sympathetic magic but also the almost universal belief in the intercommunication and bond between all living things.
The May Queen outlived the King of the May and reigned alone, seated on a flower-decked throne in a bower of greenery and flowers. Attendant children, forming her court, wore wreaths of flowers and carried garlands or cowslip balls. Maid Marian and Robin Hood still took part in the ceremonies as the Green Man, or Jack-in-the-Green, playing an essential role. Green, being the ritual colour of the May Day festivities, was worn by most of the characters; it is also the faery colour. Sometimes the Green Man was a sweep, with a blackened face, May 1st being a sweeps’ holiday. The May Queen now survives in a few rural and urban places, appearing in pageants and carnivals, but the occasion has lost its original religious and magical significance. The Greek eiresione was the same as the May-branch of Europe; both were fertility symbols. The repression was of olive or laurel; the Maypole was decked with ribbons and fruits and carried in procession then fastened to the door of the house and left there until the next year.
Scandinavia and Germany
In Scandinavia and Germany, May trees were important both to people and cattle as fertility powers; the trees, or bushes, were set up at the doors of byres or stables, sometimes one for each animal, to bring fertility. The branch, or pole, is an embodiment of the tree-spirit of vegetation and its vital powers. In the slavic lands of Russia, Transylvania and Romania, Green George was their equivalent of the English Jack-in-the-Green, often celebrated on St George’s Day, April 23.
May Eve was also a time for venting public opinion. “Birchers” went round from house to house leaving appropriate decorations on the doors—pear boughs for the well-liked and popular; plum for the glum; elder for the surly; thorns for the prickly types and those scorned; weeds for the unpopular and flowering gorse for ladies of easy virtue.
May Eve, the night from April 30 to May 1, is now called Walpurgisnacht, the night of Walpurgis or Walpurga. It is quite like Halloween in its celebration. The festival is marked by numerous rituals to ward off evil. Legend has it that on Walpurgisnacht the witches would gather on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains. Because of the Walpurgisnacht scene in Goethe’s Faust, in which Mephistopheles takes Faust to the Brocken and has him revel with the witches, the witches gathering became widely known.
Under Christian influence, Walpurgisnacht became a festival to drive out evil spirits. Walpurgis derives its name from Walpurga or Walburga, Abbess of Heidenheim near Eichstätt, a Catholic Saint, who was known as the protectoress against witchcraft and sorcery, since she was one of the first missionaries from Christian Britain to pagan Germany.
On the Eve of May 1, bells toll in some areas and prayers are said; including blessings with holy-water; blessed sprigs of hawthorn, rowan etc can be found in homes and barns. The most widespread remedy against evil spirits during Walpurgisnacht is noise, since this was deemed the most effective way to drive off evil spirits. As soon as the sun sets, boys of all ages traditionally make lots of noise to drive out the evil spirits. In Bavaria, May Eve is called a Freinacht or Drudennacht. For young people it is an opportunity to play tricks. They stroll in groups through the streets playing pranks on the unsuspecting.
A Rich History
So our modern May Day holiday has a rich past, redolent with symbolism and meaning. Whether we take a deep historical view, or whether we just have fun in the sun, May Day (Beltaine) is widely celebrated throughout the world. It is one of the key turning points of the ritual year. In this writer’s view, we need more ritual celebrations to bring our communities closer together and should cherish those that still survive.
May Day is one of the cross-quarter days, marking the midpoints between the solstices and the equinoxes. The other cross-quarter days are Candlemas (Feb. 2), Lughnassadh, or Lammas (August 1) and Halloween (Oct. 31) followed by All Saints Day (Nov. 1). Now you know all about it, make sure you enjoy your May Day!