With the approach of May, when the land seems suddenly filled with the blossoms of springtime, the towns and villages of Britain are busy completing the preparations for their annual May Day Festivals and countless young girls are eagerly looking forward to the great moment when, as MAY QUEEN, they will ride to their crowning in a chariot decked with spring flowers. Then with the garlanded and gaily painted Maypole set up in its accustomed position on the green (or even in the street), they will preside over the traditional dances and festivities which celebrate the arrival of ‘THE GLADDEST TIME OF THE YEAR’.
The ancient Celts and Druids celebrated Beltane [which means ‘day of fire’]’ in honour of the Sun God Bel at the beginning of the Spring and the first spring planting. The Saxons made the eve before (the last day of April) their festival time. From the 12th to 15th centuries many towns and cities had Maypoles so tall and heavy they had to be buried deeply in the ground and they remained standing throughout the year and only on MayDay were they decorated with flower crowns, ribbons and streamers. In most villages at dawn young men and women would go into the forest, the young men to choose a tree, strip it of its branches (all but the top) and carry it to the village green ready for erection, decoration and the day’s celebrations. Meanwhile the young women would be gathering flowers, greenery, ribbons and streamers to garland the Maypole and anyone or anything else involved on the May Day where the chosen Queen of the May would preside over the events and feasts. Maypole dancing then involved young men and women holding ribbons and weaving in and out with no definite pattern and lingering to kiss on the way. Social hierarchy was set aside on May Day to involve everyone from the highest to the lowest.
May Day is a celebration of fertility. In the old days whole villages would go to the woods and all sorts of temporary sexual liaisons would take place. Robin Goodfellow, also known as the Green Man was the Lord of Misrule on May Day. He and his supporters would make jokes and poke fun at the local authorities. [Echoes of Roman winter celebrations].
And furth goth all the Court, both most and lest
To feche the floures fressh, and braunch and blome
And namely, hawthorn brought both page and grome
With fresh garlandes, partie blewe and whyte …
(The Court of Love, first printed 1561, previously attributed to Chaucer)
In the 1600’s May Day celebrations and processions were banned by Oliver Cromwell as being pagan and sinful but in some parts of England villages were still celebrating. It wasn’t until 1660 with the restoration of King Charles II that May Day celebrations and festivities were in full swing after the severity of the Puritan regime. Queen Victoria’s subjects re-invented the May Day Traditions under the guise of ‘Merrie England Festivals’ Maypole Dancing became more intricate and patterns and plaiting of the ribbons whilst dancing was imported from Europe in the 1880’s. A favourite with young girls at that time was to cover a garland in flowers and ribbons to be held by two of the girls, another to carry a doll in a box covered with a cloth. They would go from house to house asking the inhabitants if they would like to see the ‘May Baby’ – this of course was for a contribution of money.
This garland has evolved in our procession into the Hoop Garland held by two girls over the May Queen and Prince when they leave the Common after the Crowning Ceremony. The decorated ‘cage’ on a pole carried at the rear of the procession depicts the cage carrying the ‘May Baby’ (this custom is believed to have started when Cromwell banned May Day processions and the collection of money – people paid to see the doll). In Cornwall at Helston they hold Floral Day (more correctly Flora Day). One of the oldest surviving customs in the Country- a mayday celebration to mark the coming of spring and the passing of winter. The Hal-an-tow, which takes place on the same day, is a mystery play with various historical and mythical themes, and contains disparaging references to the Spaniards, probably referring to the Spanish raid on Newlyn in 1595.
Unlike Easter, Whitsun, or Christmas, May Day is the one festival of the year which christianity has not "borrowed" from pagan times for its own practice. In previous centuries working people would take the day off to celebrate, often without the support of their employer. May Day is recognized throughout the world as International Workers’ Day and was declared a holiday by the International Working Men’s Association (First International) in Paris in 1889.
The USA does not recognise May Day. The US government attempted to erase Mayday from its history by declaring that May 1st was ‘Law Day’ instead. This is despite the fact that the holiday began in the 1880s in the United States, with the fight for an eight-hour work day. The heart of the movement was in Chicago. In 1886, 250,000 workers were involved in the May Day movement. Today “ Labor Day” is a holiday devoid of any historical significance other than its importance as a day to swill beer and sit in traffic jams.
So worker’s of the world unite against your capitalist masters. Or go dance around a maypole !
Workers of the world, awaken!
Rise in all your splendid might
Take the wealth that you are making,
It belongs to you by right.
No one will for bread be crying
We’ll have freedom, love and health,
When the grand red flag is flying
In the Workers’ Commonwealth.