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May Day

May Day
  • Jack and Jill (by )
  • The Festival Book : May-Day Pastime and ... (by )
  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles, A Pure Woman ... (by )
  • Twice-Told Tales (by )
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It’s finally spring, a time for rebirth, renewal, and new beginnings. May 1st marks May Day, a traditional springtime festival celebrated by various cultures around the globe. This holiday is still widely celebrated today, but its origins lie in ancient pagan celebrations that involved fertility rites. 

 May Day celebrations include dancing, singing, feasting, and performing fertility rituals. Maypole dancing, a folk dance that hails from Germany, England, and Sweden, is one such ritual. During this celebration, revelers dance in a circle around a pole that is adorned with colorful streamers and ribbons. Historians believe that the pole symbolized male fertility.  

May Day traditions were once prominent in America, too. On May 1, people hung baskets and wreaths on the doors of their loved ones and friends. The festive baskets which symbolized female fertility, were filled with flowers, candy, and other treasures. In Jack and Jill, Louisa May Alcott writes, “The job now in hand was May baskets, for it was the custom of the children to hang them on the doors of their friends the night before May-day; and the girls had agreed to supply baskets if the boys would hunt for flowers, much the harder task of the two.” (p. 236)

Beltane or the Beltane Fire Festival is the name of the Gaelic May Day festival observed in Ireland and Scotland. Its rituals included driving cattle out to the pasture and lighting bonfires to protect cattle and crops. The fire also symbolized the return of life and fertility after a hard, cold winter.
Walpurgis Night honors St. Walpurga, who brought Christianity to Germany. It is celebrated in Germany, Finland, and Sweden. In Germany, revelers dress in costumes, play pranks, and create loud noises to keep evil away. Finland’s May Day celebration, Vappu, features consumption of sima, an alcoholic beverage. In Sweden, it’s customary to sing traditional songs and light bonfires.

In The Festival Book: May Day Pastime and the May-Pole: Dances, Revels and Musical Games for the Playground, School and College, Jennette Emeline Carpenter Lincoln writes, “In Sweden fires are built the night before May Day and old Winter is burned in effigy and his ashes strewn over his grave. This was at one time a custom in England also.” (p. 2)

May Day dancing ushers a festive tone to many literary works. In Tess of the D’Ubevilles, Thomas Hardy writes, “The May-day dance, for instance, was to be discerned on the afternoon under notice, in the guise of the club revel, or ‘club-walking,’ as it was there called.” In The Festival Book: May Day Pastime and the May-Pole: Dances, Revels and Musical Games for the Playground, School and College, Hawthorne in his “Twice Told Tales” tells us that they who danced round the May–pole were to pour sunshine over New England’s rugged hills and scatter flower seed throughout the soil. (p. 8) 

By Regina Molaro

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