May's Culture Article


May Day - May 1st

by Lynne Hand

The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian Europe, although the pagan-oriented celebrations faded as Europe became Christianised, a more secular version of the holiday continued to be observed in the schools and churches of Europe well into the 20th century. In this form, In the UK May Day is best known for its traditions of dancing the Maypole and crowning of the Queen of the May.


The Origins of May Day

May Day is associated with the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night). It falls exactly half a year from November 1,  which is also associated with various northern European pagan and neopagan festivals such as Samhain (Halloween). May Day marks the end of the uncomfortable winter half of the year in the Northern hemisphere, and it has traditionally been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations. It has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries, most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility and revelry with fetes and community gatherings,regardless of the locally prevalent political or religious establishment.

As Europe became Christianized, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and either morphed into popular secular celebrations, as with May Day, or were given new Christian interpretations while retaining many traditional pagan features, as with Christmas, Easter, and All Saint's Day. Beginning in the 20th century, many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival once more.

Also, 1 May 1707, was the day the Act of Union came into effect, joining England and Scotland to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. Although this isn't celebrated, especially not in Scotland.

Traditional Events

Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen, celebrating Green Man day and dancing around a Maypole. Much of this tradition derives from the pagan festival of Beltane.  Perhaps the most significant of the traditions is the May Pole, around which traditional dancers circle with ribbons.

The May Day Bank Holiday was traditionally the only one to affect the state school calendar, although new arrangements in some areas to even out the length of school terms mean that the Good Friday and Easter Monday Bank Holidays, which vary from year to year, may also fall during term time.

A good example of more traditional May Day festivities may still be witnessed in Padstow and its annual 'Obby 'Oss festival. A traditional Sweeps Festival is performed over the May bank holiday in Rochester, Kent where the Jack In the Green is woken at dawn on the 1st of May by morris dancers.

Padstow in Cornwall holds its annual 'Obby-Oss' day of festivities. This is believed to be one of the oldest fertility rites in the country; revellers dance with the Oss through the streets of the town and even through the private gardens of the citizens, accompanied by accordion players and followers dressed in white with red or blue sashes who sing the traditional 'May Day' song. The whole town is decorated with springtime greenery, and every year thousands of onlookers attend. Prior to the 19th century May Day distinctive May day celebrations were widespread through out West Cornwall.

In Oxford on May Morning, many pubs are open from sunrise, and some of the college bars are open all night. Madrigals are still sung from the roof of the tower of Magdalen College, with thousands gathering on Magdalen Bridge to listen. In a recent tradition, revellers have jumped from the bridge into the River Cherwell below as part of the celebrations. About one hundred people did this in 2005. The river, however, was then only eighteen inches deep in places and more than half of those who jumped needed medical treatment, suffering injuries ranging from broken ankles and legs to back injuries and large gashes on the bottom of feet. One person has been paralysed as a result. As a result, the bridge itself was closed to the public during the 2006 celebrations.

St Andrews in Scotland has a similar student tradition — some of the students gather on the beach late on April 30 and run into the North Sea at sunrise on the 1st, occasionally naked. This is accompanied by torchlit processions and much celebration. 

The May Day Run

The Mydayrun (also referred to as "MayDay Run" or "May Day Run"), is an annual event held in England. It involves thousands of motorbikes taking a 55-mile trip from the south of London (Locksbottom, Farnborough, Kent) to Hastings Seafront (Hastings, East Sussex). The event has been taking place for over 40 years now and has grown in interest from around the country, both commercially and publicly. The event is not officially organised; the police only manage the traffic, while volunteers manage the parking.

Hastings fills up with tourists and bikes by about 11 AM, and the A21 from Kent to East Sussex is the road the bikers travel. However, this road should be avoided if travelling in a car.

Other May Day Associations

International Workers' Day is a name used interchangeably with May Day. It is a celebration of the social and economic achievements of the international labour movement, and there are organized street demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of working people and their labour unions throughout Europe and most of the rest of the world — though not in either the United States or Canada. More radical groups such as communists and anarchists are also given to widespread street protest on this day as well.

May Day was originally the commemoration of the Chicago riots of 1886: in 1889, the first congress of the Second International, meeting in Paris for the centennial of the French Revolution and the Exposition Universelle (1889), following a proposal by Raymond Lavigne, called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago riot. These were so successful that May Day was formally recognized as an annual event at the International's second congress in 1891. The May Day Riots of 1894 and May Day Riots of 1919 occurred subsequently.

In the United Kingdom in recent years the anti-capitalist movement has organised a number of large protests in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Doncaster. In London, these have resulted in clashes with the police.  In 2000 the clashes ended with a branch of McDonalds being smashed and a statue of Winston Churchill being given a grass mohawk as a protest at his alleged crimes, the Cenotaph was also defaced with graffiti.

The last few years, however, have seen little trouble, with protests consisting of peaceful marches and gatherings, particularly in central London.  This downturn in civil disorder is usually attributed to either popular distaste at the events of 2000 or a tougher stance by the British government on violent protest, or a combination thereof.


About the Author:  Lynne Hand is the editor of the English Magazine and runs the Learn English Network .