May Day is a cross quarter day that marks the end of the winter half of the year in the Northern hemisphere, and has traditionally been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations.
It’s hard to imagine when you see a beautifully decorated Maypole with innocent children holding ribbons as they dance around it, that this was once a hedonistic ritual that celebrated the sensual pleasures of life.
May Day celebrations have their origins in the Roman Festival of Flora, goddess of fruit, flowers, prosperity and abundance. This festival, which marked the beginning of summer, was held annually from April 28th to May 3rd and was a time for merriment and celebrations of an amorous nature. Prostitutes even considered it their own special time.
The Festival of Flora was much like the northern flowers and sex festival, Baltane , whose date coincides.
Beltane was celebrated by the ancient Celts and Saxons as the day of fire, in honor of the god of the sun. Each village was decorated with greenery and flowers, pretty girls adorned themselves with colorful ribbons and all sorts of games were played. The night before Beltane men and women roamed their villages in bizarre masks as devils and animals, demanding food, drink, and mocking their hosts.
On the day itself, women wore their finest clothes with decorative flowers in their hair, and one would be named the Queen of May and crowned with greenery and flowers. The new May Queen would chose a partner as her lover, and lead a dance around the maypole, where other young women and men would join the dance and entwine the ribbons they carried in order to find a mate…perhaps just for that one night.
Persecution of May Day festivities began as early as the 1600 and in 1644, as the Church brought its full force to bear upon the debauchery and the British Parliament banned its practice as immoral. However, governments throughout Europe were largely ineffective in outlawing these celebrations. In the end, the Church took a different approach by proclaiming the day a feast day for Saints Philip and James. And Baltane, like other ancient celebrations based on the turning of the seasons, became partially assimilated into Christianity.
Though these efforts led to the destruction of May Day in some places, the traditions and customs of May Day continued to remain strong throughout much of the peasantry of Europe, whose ties to one another and to nature were far stronger than their ties to the ruling class and its religion. Their celebrations became increasingly festive, especially at night when huge feasts, song, dance and free love were practiced.
Like Christmas and Easter, May Day also has some of the trappings of its pagan origin but its ancient roots are not generally known.