Britain's May Day Celebrations
by Julie Tortora
The present government has proposed changing the date of the May Day Celebrations, currently fixed on the first Monday of May, to a day in October (supposedly better for tourism!). Their rationale is that it is a modern socialist holiday and can be held at any time of year. True, the Second International, an organization of Socialist and Labour parties, formed in Paris 1889-1916, did declare May 1st International Workers’ Day and accorded all workers a holiday at that time, but it is a gross oversight to dismiss the traditional May celebrations of Britain and other countries of northern Europe, which are much more ancient and significant.
May is the time when Spring is established and is moving into summer. The dark, cold and unproductive season of winter is over and all life tends towards fertility and new growth. The Celtic pagan festivals of Beltane in Britain and Walpurgis Night in Germany both ritualized this moment of passage. People performed rites to invoke good energy for the growing of crops, for the health and reproduction of livestock and for the fertility of young women in the community.
Beltane means “brightfire” and refers to the growing power of the sun, as the days grow longer and warmer. Astronomically it is a cross-quarter day, halfway between the equinox and the solstice and six months on from November 1st , the beginning of Samhain, the season of winter.
At Beltane the returning sun would be greeted with celebration and feasting. Great bonfires, sometimes with sweet smelling Juniper, were built to achieve purification and rejuvenation. The veil between the material and spiritual worlds was felt to be thin at this time. The Rowan branch, or Mountain Ash, with its red berries was held around the fires and hung over doorways to ward off evil spirits and often the cattle would be driven between the fires, on the way from their winter pens to the summer pastures, to purge any ill luck and hopefully ensure fertility and a good a milk yield. Men would leap over the fires.
The Triple Goddess, worshipped by the ancient Britons, was transformed in May from the old wizened Crone of winter, who was now turned to stone, into the beautiful young Maiden named variously as the May Queen, The May Bride or Flower Bride, Queen of the Fairies, and Goddess of Spring. She is adorned with May blossom, the flower of the Hawthorn, widespread in the British countryside at this time of year and symbolising female fertility. The plant was believed to hold a powerful magic and it was unlucky to bring the blossom inside the house except on May eve. Old ballads and songs speak of young lovers going “a-maying”, frolicking all the balmy night among the May bushes and being blessed, no doubt, with a hoped-for pregnancy.
Another festive practice was the dancing round the Maypole. A wooden pole would be erected, often topped with a crown of flowers to honour the May Bride but sometimes circled at the top by a free hanging hoop, to represent the sexual conjunction of the male and the female. It has also been suggested that, in a more spiritual sense, the pole was a version of the axis mundi or the tree of life. Ribbons were attached to the top of the pole and, as the dancers circled around, the ribbons weaved together around the pole in the form of the spiral of life, not dissimilar to the shape of the DNA molecule, the Caduceus and the Ida and Pingala nadis of Yoga.
In some areas of Ireland, as well as among the neo-pagans and in persevering rural traditions, many of these practices still continue today and their resonance lives on, albeit sometimes subconsciously. The idea that this festival of life and renewal could be severed from its springtime connection and plonked down in the middle of the Autumn is to abandon our connection with nature.