In medieval times, May Day was often celebrated by young men and women dancing on the village green around a specially-decorated tree called a maypole.
The branches of a slender tree were cut off, coloured ribbons tied to the top and the revellers held on to the ends of the ribbons and danced. Some villages still carry on the tradition today.
Before the dancing began there was also a procession led by a woman appointed May Queen for the day. Sometimes she was accompanied by a May King, who dressed in green to symbolise springtime and fertility.
|The maypole was a symbol of fertility|
In Germany, it was the tradition that a fir tree was cut down on May Eve by young unmarried men. The branches were removed and it was decorated and set up in village square. The tree was guarded all night to prevent it being stolen by the men of a neighbouring village. If the guard was foolish enough to fall asleep the going ransom rate for a maypole was a good meal and a barrel of beer.
A similar festival existed in ancient Rome called Floralia, which took place at around the end of April and was dedicated to the Flower Goddess Flora. On May 1, offerings were made the goddess Maia, after which the month of May is named.
Pagan groups call the fertility festival by its Celtic name of Beltane.
The church in the middle ages tolerated the May Day celebrations but the Protestant Reformation of the 17th century soon put a stop to them. The Puritans were outraged at the immorality that often accompanied the drinking and dancing – and Parliament banned maypoles altogether in 1644.
But when Charles II was restored to the throne a few years later, people all over the country put up maypoles as a celebration and a sign of loyalty to the crown.
May Day had a boost in popularity again in the 19th century when the Victorians seized on it as a “rustic delight”. But many of the significant pagan aspects of the day were ignored by our strait-laced ancestors and instead of a fertility rite, dancing around the maypole became a children’s game.
For traditionalists other things to do on May Day include getting up before dawn and going outside to wash your face in dew – according to folklore this keeps the complexion beautiful.
“Bringing in the May” also involves getting up very early, gathering flowers, making them into garlands and then giving them to your friends to wear. If you are feeling particularly charitable, folklore advises that it is good time to make up a “May basket” of flowers to take to someone who needs cheering up.
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