10 Curious Facts About May Day

Children run around the maypole in Bournville Village in Birmingham, United Kingdom. Tracy Kent [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

The first of May is a contradiction as far as days of observance go. It's a holiday suffering from multiple personality disorder; one identity dedicated to strike and protest, the other embracing all things spring and frolicsome.

In the late 19th century, leaders of the socialist Second International were fighting for an eight-hour work day and they called for a global day of protest to be held on May 1, 1890. It has lived on as an international workers' day, and has received renewed vigor in the United States over the years. But this is a relatively new side of the date, which was celebrated as a pagan festival in pre-Christian times and peaked as a celebration in the Middle Ages. Honoring the Roman goddess of flowers, Flora, the date was also associated with other festivals, such as the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night.

Marking the beginning of spring, May Day has long been celebrated to mark vitality and fertility — which means that early incarnations of the holiday involved all kinds of raucous debauchery. Along with the frisky antics, some other traditions were born as well, some of which are listed here.

1. The Maypole Dance

May Day is probably best known now for the medieval tradition of "dancing the maypole dance," a custom that continues to be practiced. Fair young maidens circle the decorated pole weaving together patterns of ribbons in the process. Hawthorne and lily of the valley are traditional flowers used for garland. Similar ribbon dances were performed in pre-Columbian Latin America and were later incorporated into Hispanic ritual dances.

2. Masculine and Feminine

The pole is thought by many to (not so subtly) represent the masculine, while the decorations of flowers, wreaths and ribbons are thought to symbolize the feminine. Although some scholars assert that sometimes a tree is just a tree — the pole was not a phallic symbol, but rather a nod to the sacred nature of the tree. The pole was traditionally made of maple, hawthorn or birch; the men of a community would select the tallest, straightest tree they could find, and place it in the village green.

3. Rolling in the Hay

The celebration of fertility and abundance led to couples disappearing in the fields and woods for a "roll in the hay," so to speak — the practice of which promised abundance. In general, it was a day marked by a libidinous mood; excessive promiscuity encouraged increased fertility in general for the year to come.

4. It Was Once Banned

Persecution of May Day festivities began as early as the 1600s, and in 1640 the Church ruled against the debauchery when the British Parliament banned the traditions as immoral. A much tamer version was brought back in 1644 under the rule of Charles II.

5. Fairy Tale

Some beliefs held that May Day was the last chance for fairies to travel to the Earth.

6. Facial Treatments

Tradition dictates that washing one's face in the dew from May Day morning beautifies the skin.

7. May Day Baskets

Calvin Coolidge wife
A group of young girls deliver a May Day basket to first lady Grace Coolidge in 1927. Library of Congress

The giving of May Baskets has, sadly, faded since the late 20th century. Small baskets of sweets and flowers would be left anonymously on doorsteps to the delight of neighbors. (We vote for a revival.)

8. Happy Day

In Italy, May Day is regarded as the happiest day of the year, by some accounts.

9. Hawaii's Own Celebration

Since 1928, May Day in Hawaii has been known as Lei Day, a spring celebration that embraces Hawaiian culture and in particular, the lei. The holiday song, "May Day is Lei Day in Hawai'i," was originally a fox trot, but was later rearranged as a Hawaiian hula.

10. Distress Signals

The international distress signal, "mayday," has nothing to do with the first of May. It derives from the French venez m'aider, meaning "come help me."