Having grown up in N.Ireland, May Day was typically celebrated with Maypole dancing during a bank holiday weekend or ‘the May Day holiday’, with May Day itself falling either on 1st May or the first Monday of May.
One of our local towns, Holywood, which still has a traditional Maypole (that doubled as a flagpole at other times of the year), would become be-decked with multi-coloured ribbons. So we’d go to watch the children with their floral crowns, dance around the maypole weaving these braids of colour in and out around the central column into various amazing patterns.
But May Day celebrations come from ancient festivals of spring and more traditionally in Ireland, the festival of Beltane, and I never really knew about the origin of these festivities, or where such traditions came from?
So let's delve a little further...
According to wikipedia, some of the earliest known May celebrations appeared during Roman times.
Firstly we have the Roman festival ‘Floralia’ which was held from 27th April - 3rd May and celebrated the Roman goddess ‘Flora’ - goddess of flowers (especially the may-flower), vegetation, fertility and spring.
The Floralia included theatrical performances, hares and goats were released and ‘crowds were pelted with vetches, beans, and lupins’. A ritual called the ‘Florifertum’ was performed on either 27th April or 3rd May - which involved a bundle of wheat ears that was carried into Flora’s shrine.
Every three years, the Romans also celebrated an additional May festival called the ‘Maiouma’ or ‘Maiuma’ - named because it is celebrated in the month of ‘May-Artemisios’.
This was a month-long ‘nocturnal dramatic festival’ also given the name ‘Orgies’, which celebrated the ‘Mysteries of Dionysus and Aphrodite’. Dionysus - being the god of grape-harvest, winemaking and wine, of fertility, orchards and fruit, vegetation, insanity, ritual madness, religious ecstasy, festivity and theatre. And Aphrodite - goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, passion and procreation.
The Maiouma was celebrated with splendorous banquets and offerings and money was set aside by the government to provide torches, lights, and other expenses to cover a thirty-day festival of ‘all-night revel’. However this was later banned as it had a reputation for being particularly licentious and debauched!
In Germanic countries, they celebrate ‘Walpurgis Night’ on 1st May, which commemorates the official canonisation of Saint Walpurga - invoked as special patroness against hydrophobia, in storms, and also by sailors.
It is said that at Eichstätt, after her bones were placed in a ‘rocky niche’, they allegedly began to exude an oil which later drew pilgrims to her shrine, and was hailed as a miracle therapeutic oil!
Since the 18th century, many Roman Catholics have observed May, and May Day, with various May ‘devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary’, whereby Mary's head was often adorned with flowers in a ‘May crowning’.
1st May is also one of two feast days of the Catholic patron saint of workers St Joseph The Worker - who was a carpenter by trade and husband to Mary, and surrogate father of Jesus.
1st May is celebrated as ‘International Workers' Day’, sometimes known as ‘Labour Day’ in many countries, as well as May Day. This is a celebration of labourers and the working classes that is promoted by the international labour movement.
The best known modern May Day traditions, observed in Europe, include dancing around the maypole and crowning the Queen of May. With English May Day rites further including Maypole and Morris dancing.
The May Queen was a girl who rides or walks at the front of a parade or procession for May Day. She typically wears a white or a white gown to symbolise purity and her duty is to begin the May Day celebrations.
At her ‘crowning’, the May Queen would receive a crown of flowers, after which she makes a speech and then the dancing begins.
It is said that this actually came from an older tradition in which there was both a May King And Queen - or the ‘Lord and Lady’ - who were chosen to preside over the May Day festivities, but later the focus was placed upon the Queen of the May.
At the May Day festival, it would’ve been the younger children that then danced around the Maypole as a celebration of youth, as well as Springtime.
It is said that the origins of the maypole are uncertain and are thought to have come from literary references of two poems in the mid-to-late-14th century which talked about a ‘the grete shaft of Corneylle’ in London.
What we do know is that the maypole was a central focus of May Day celebrations around which the community gathered to celebrate and dance. Some places had permanent maypoles and others erected a new one each year.
However much more ancient references state that a ‘sacred pine of Attis’ was taken in procession, or on a chariot, to the temple of Cybele (the Anatolian Mother Goddess of flowers and fruitfulness) and set up for veneration.
This ‘pole’ was followed by men, women and children alike, and dances were performed around it, with the ribbons suggested as bands of wool bound around the ‘Attis pine’. This ceremony later appeared in the Roman ‘Hilaria’ - the Spring festival - and then in the May Day celebrations of the May Queen and the Green Man.
Again this particular reference refers back to Roman mythology which tells the story of Cybele, whose lover, Attis (Phrygian god of vegetation), was gored by a wild boar and bled to death under a pine tree.
The distraught Cybele believed that the spirit of Attis had been transferred to the tree so she had it cut down and brought back to Rome, where it was decorated with flowers and garlands. A period of mourning was then observed after which Attis's spirit was resurrected and restored to Cybele, symbolising the rebirth of all living things in the spring.
So it is suggested that the custom of bringing back a tree from the woods and setting it up as a Maypole and decorating it with flowers and garlands came from the origins of this story.
These more ancient ceremonies were to honour renewed life, the union between a man and a woman, fertility, resurrection and Spring.
This ancient symbolism of the Maypole is further based upon the reference to the ‘axis mundi’ - the point around which the universe is said to revolve. The ‘Attis pine’, or tree the Maypole was constructed from, was stripped of foliage to symbolise change. Hence being transformed into ‘the pole’, it becomes the central axis point of the celebration.
The pole has further phallic connotations as is a masculine symbol, with the discus on the top of the pole representing the feminine symbol. The two together - the pole and the disc - represents fertility.
For numerology we have 7 ribbons to represent the colours of the rainbow. The maypole also symbolises the number 10, with the pole as the central ‘1’ and the discus, along with the circle danced around it, representing ‘0’.
Being a Celt, May Day is celebrated with the ancient Celtic fire festival Beltane or Beltain which welcomed the start of the summer and was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man.
Most commonly held on 1 May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, Beltane is one of the four Celtic seasonal festivals - along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh.
Beltane comes from the Gaelic word meaning ‘bright fire’ or ‘lucky fire’, but it was also known as ‘Cétshamhain’ - which means ‘first of summer’ - as it marked the beginning of the summer season.
This was a time when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures, and as the Gaelic Celts were primarily herdsmen, rituals were performed during this festival to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth.
Starting on the eve of the 30th April, special bonfires were kindled, as their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers.
The people would walk around or between the bonfires to absorb the fires protective powers, and other rituals, like leaping over the flames and embers, were enacted for luck. The animals would be driven through the smoke of the fire or made to jump over the fires as well, as this was thought to help protect their milk from being stolen by fairies.
The Beltane festival included feasting, whereby some of the food and drink was offered to the ‘aos sí’ - a supernatural race in Irish and Scottish mythology comparable to the fairies or elves.
Doors, windows, byres and livestock would be decorated with yellow May flowers, as they evoked fire.
In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush. This was typically a thorn bush or branch decorated with flowers, ribbons, bright shells and rushlights.
Holy wells were also visited, and the Beltane dew was collected as it was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness.
Later, embers from the Beltane fires would be taken home to light the fires in your house as a further measure of protective luck.
All these rituals were believed to protect the Celtic people in the months ahead, and to encourage growth in their animals and in their lives.
Many of these customs later become part of May Day festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe.
The celts used the ‘Wheel of the Year’ symbol to represent their seasonal festivals. Lying directly opposite Beltane on this wheel, is the festival of Samhain (more commonly called Halloween). During both these times, it was thought that the ‘veil between worlds’ was at its thinnest.
At Samhain the veil is between the worlds of the living and the dead, and is thin enough for us to connect with our beloved dead or for ‘bad spirits’ to play havoc in the human world. Whereas at Beltane, it’s the veil between the human world and the world of faeries and nature spirits that has grown thin.
Just like at Samhain whenever bad spirits can get out of control, at Beltane the faeries are thought to be especially active and can get up to mischief. In an effort to appease these nature spirits, offerings would be left at the ancient faerie forts, the wells and in other sacred places. And like the fire rituals this was also to ensure a successful growing season.
I find all these origin stories fascinating. When I sat down to initially write this blog I knew a little about Maypole dancing and some of the symbolism behind Beltane, but I certainly did not know how the stories are woven into different rituals and how they have evolved from ancient cultures into modern day ones.
The story of Cybele and Attis is tragic at best, but the honoring of the tree he died at is the same as any ritual in which we take something that belonged to a departed loved one and we cherish it to remind us of them. And how many times have I done this with a piece of jewellery - taken a client's sentimental pieces which hold a story and transformed that into a new creation in memory of them!
And protection from ‘bad spirits’ - this is something that appears so many times in all different cultures. To wear jewellery as amulets and talisman to protect you from harm, or to wear a charm as a token of luck has been a tradition that can be traced all the way back to pre-historic times.
Honouring our dead, trying to keep their memory alive and protection from anything bad happening to us - these really are primal instincts of being a caring human!