Some years back while I was traveling through Italy I had a cousin of mine ask me what I would be doing to celebrate May 1st. I told him going to work. He sort of looked at me funny so I asked him what would he be doing and he said that May 1 was a National Holiday in Italy.
Other than being born in the month of May and knowing that May was the month of Mary I really didn’t know what the significance of May 1st was.
According to legend May Day was begun during pagan and pre-Christian times as the festival of Flora, The Roman goddess of flowers. The festival of Flora can be found in the history books as far back as the Gaelic Beltane era.
May 1 has been a National Holiday and is celebrated in over 80 countries in the world. To many countries where Catholicism is of major importance May 1 is also the feast of the Blessed Virgin.
Some of the traditions observed on this day are as diverse as the countries which celebrate it.
In Germany, May Day is known as Walpurgis Night. St. Walburga is the saint credited with bringing Christianity to Germany. In certain regions of the country they celebrate by the delivery of a maypole, a tree covered in streamers delivered to the house of a girl the night before. The tree is typically from a love interest, though a tree wrapped only in white streamers is a sign of dislike. All of this is usually done secretly and it is an individual’s choice whether to give a hint of their identity or stay anonymous.
In France, during the reign of King Charles IX and beginning on May 1, 1561, the King gave each lady at court a lily of the valley flower. The flower became a symbol of springtime and a lucky charm. Today people in France still give Lily of the Valley Flowers to each other but they also give dog rose flowers.
In Ireland, May Day has been celebrated since pagan times as the feast of Bealtaine and in latter times as Mary’s day. Traditionally, bonfires were lit to mark the coming of summer and to banish the long nights of winter.
In Bulgaria Bulgarians celebrate Irminden. The name of the holiday comes from the prophet Jeremiah. Bulgarians say that on the feast of the Annunciation (March 25), snakes come out of their burrows, but on Irminden (May 1st) their king comes out. Therefore legend states that those working in the fields on May 1st will be bitten by a snake in summer, so the day is a holiday for workers.
In Canada, May Day is celebrated in some parts of the Province of British Columbia. The British Columbia city of New Westminster can claim the longest continually observed May Day in the British Commonwealth. They have been holding celebrations since 1870.
Perhaps no country does more on this day than does Great Britain. May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. Towns and villages celebrate springtime fertility of the soil, livestock, and people with village fetes and community gatherings. Since the reform of the Catholic calendar, May 1 is the Feast of St Joseph the Worker. Seeding of the fields has been completed by this date and it was convenient to give farm laborers a day off.
In Oxford, it is traditional for May Day Morning revelers to gather below the Great Tower of Magdalen College at 6:00 a.m. to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals as a conclusion to the previous night’s celebrations.
At 7:15 p.m. on May 1 each year, the Kettle Bridge Clogs morris dance troupe side dance across Barming Bridge (known as the Kettle Bridge), to mark the official start of their morris dancing season.
In Cornwall they celebrate Obby-Oss (Hobby Horse) day of festivities. This is believed to be one of the oldest fertility rite celebrations in the UK; revelers dance with the Oss through the streets of the town and even through private gardens accompanied by accordion players and followers dressed in white with red or blue sashes who sing the traditional ‘May Day’ song.
An older Edinburgh tradition has it that young women who climb Arthur’s Seat and wash their faces in the morning dew will have lifelong beauty.
In the United States, May 1st is now known as International Workers’ Day; a focal point for demonstrations by various socialist, communist and anarchist groups commemorating the 1886 Haymarket massacre in Chicago.
My husband tells me that he remembers making “May Baskets” as a child. These small baskets would be filled with sweets and/or flowers and then usually left anonymously on neighbors’ doorsteps. The person receiving the basket tries to catch the fleeing giver and if caught, a kiss is exchanged. Mike tells me he made his baskets for his Mom.
Only time will tell what festivities we will see here in Spain on May 1st. There are no signs or posters alerting anyone to a special activity or event. We do know is it a National Holiday here with all the banks and libraries closed. Mike and I will simply have to walk around the city on May 1st and see what we can find; you never know, I just might find a maypole to dance around.