May Eve, April 30th, and May Day, May first, have long been part of the celebration of spring in Europe. The flowering of fruit trees and sowing season were important to agriculturalists in the hope of a good harvest. Lambing, kidding, and calving season had passed, so animals could be allowed out to more remote pastures. In ancient Rome a week was given to the celebration of the goddess Flora, a goddess of flowers — especially the blossoms of fruit trees. In Germany and Scandinavia May Eve came to be part of a Christian feast, for Saint Walpurga (Walpurgisnacht in German). May Day was called Beltane among the Celts, and continues to be known by that name in some places today. May Eve was celebrated in many parts of Europe with bonfires from ancient times, and this tradition continues in many places today. In earlier times these were said to drive away evil spirits. May celebrations also included some permissiveness, with young couples going off to the fields and forests together.
Singing and dancing have always been an important part of the celebration of the arrival of May. In the United Kingdom today, traditional Morris Dancers often start May Day off at dawn, waking up their neighbors with music and song. Morris dancing may have been a part of May Day celebrations for hundreds of years. Prior to the 1700s, dances, games, and sports might be held around a large tree stripped of its limbs, decorated and erected near town as the May pole. See the player below (or the link) for a video of the American Folklife Center’s Jennifer Cutting, explaining “Bringing in the May” in the UK and America with examples from the Center’s collections (2005).
Revelry on May Day might include feasts and drinking. Mead, an alcoholic beverage made with honey, was a particular favorite at this time because of its association with the activities of bees returning to fields and orchards. In Germany, May wine, white wine flavored with May-flowering sweet woodruff, is especially associated with May Day. The revelry of this spring celebration has caused it to fall out of favor from time to time. But it inevitably comes back again, often with new variations on its customs.
In North America many different ethnic groups brought their May Day customs with them from Europe, so there are many ways to celebrate this holiday. In some places bonfires might be lit on the evening of the 30th of April, Morris dancers might greet the dawn, and May Day dances might be held. The most iconic feature of May Day, the May pole, comes to us in its Victorian version: with ribbons to be woven around it by dancing adults or children. May Day celebrations can be very elaborate, with many activities, including the selection and coronation of a King and Queen of the May. The panoramic photograph (select the image to the right) shows a grand May Day Fete at the University of Colorado in 1914.
Customs can also be very simple. My mother, who grew up in Maine, remembered getting up early to surprise friends with May baskets left anonymously on doorsteps. These baskets, which might contain some combination of flowers, sweets, or cookies, might be exchanged by sweethearts, but could be a token of friendship as well, as both children and adults participated. The custom was to put the basket on the doorstep or door handle, knock, and then run. If the receiver answered the door quickly, they could chase down the giver. If caught, the giver could only be set free when they gave the receiver a kiss. May baskets are still given today, but are most likely to be delivered by a florist. A fairly recent tradition for the celebration of May Day in the United States is “Lei Day” in Hawai’i, a celebration of the custom of making and giving leis, established in 1929. The varieties of May Day celebrations are likely to continue to grow, as each generation finds their own way of expressing the joy of the coming of spring.
- While the first mention of Morris dancing in England is in the 15th century, it is not known when the custom of performing at dawn on May Day began. Though there are historical precedents for Morris dancing on May Day, and for individual teams dancing at dawn, the first recorded incident of Morris dancing both at dawn and on May Day was in 1923, when the Oxford Morris Men decided to join the May Day Dawn festivities at Magdalen College, Oxford, England.
- Anthony Grant Barrand Collection on Morris, Sword, and Clog Dancing (collection record).
- Cutting, Jennifer, “Bringing in the May,” Library of Congress, Journeys and Crossings video series, 2005.
- James Madison Carpenter Collection (collection record with a link to the finding aid).
- Winick, Stephen, “From Cornwall to the Ozarks: More May Celebrations,” Folklife Today, May 8, 2014.