The origin of the May Day as a day for celebration dates back to the days, even before the birth of Christ. And like many ancient festivals it too has a Pagan connection.
For the Druids of the British Isles, May 1 was the second most important holiday of the year. Because, it was when the festival of Beltane held. It was thought that the day divides the year into half. The other half was to be ended with the Samhain on November 1. Those days the May Day custom was the setting of new fire. It was one of those ancient New Year rites performed throughout the world. And the fire itself was thought to lend life to the burgeoning springtime sun. Cattle were driven through the fire to purify them. Men, with their sweethearts, passed through the smoke for seeing good luck.
Then the Romans came to occupy the British Isles. The beginning of May was a very popular feast time for the Romans. It was devoted primarily to the worship of Flora, the goddess of flowers. It was in her honor a five day celebration, called the Floralia, was held. The five day festival would start from April 28 and end on May 2. The Romans brought in the rituals of the Floralia festival in the British Isles. And gradually the rituals of the Floralia were added to those of the Beltane. And many of today's customs on the May Day bear a stark similarity with those combined traditions.
May day observance was discouraged during the Puritans. Though, it was relived when the Puritans lost power in England, it didn't have the same robust force. Gradually, it came to be regarded more as a day of joy and merriment for the kids, rather than a day of observing the ancient fertility rights.
The tradition of Maypole and greeneries: By the Middle Ages every English village had its Maypole. The bringing in of the Maypole from the woods was a great occasion and was accompanied by much rejoicing and merrymaking. The Maypoles were of all sizes. And one village would vie with another to show who could produce the tallest Maypole. Maypoles were usually set up for the day in small towns, but in London and the larger towns they were erected permanently.
The Maypole tradition suffered a setback for about a couple of decades since the Puritan Long Parliament stopped it in 1644. However, with the return of the Stuarts, the Maypole reappeared and the festivities of May Day were again enjoyed. One of the great Maypoles, was The changes brought about by the Reformation included attempts to do away with practices that were obviously of pagan origin. But the Maypole, or, May tree, was not issued in practice at the behest of the second Stuart.
Although they succeeded in doing this, Maypole with most of the other traditions, many still survived. And Maypole is one of them. In France it merely changed its name. In Perigord and elsewhere, the May Tree became the "Tree of Liberty" and was the symbol of the French Revolution. Despite the new nomenclature, the peasants treated the tree in the same traditional spirit. And they would dance around it the same way as their forefathers had always done.
Maypoles and trees - Trees have been linked to a part of celebration, perhaps, to the days ancient New Year rites. The association of trees to this celebration has come riding on the back of the spring festival in ancient Europe. Trees have always been the symbol of the great vitality and fertility of nature and were often used at the spring festivals of antiquity. The anthropologist E. O. James finds a strong relationship between the ancient tree related traditions of the British and the Romans. According to James' description, as a part of the May Day celebration, the youths in old Europe cut down a tree, lopped off the branches leaving a few at the top. They then wrapped it round with violets like the figure of the Attis, the ancient Roman god. At sunrise, they used to take it back to their villages by blowing horns and flutes. In a similar manner, the sacred pine tree representing the god Attis was carried in procession to the temple of Cybele on Rome's Palatine Hill during the Spring Festival of March 22.
Roots of May Day celebration in America - The Puritans frowned on May Day, so the day has never been celebrated with as much enthusiasm in the United States as in Great Britain. But the tradition of celebrating May Day by dancing and singing around a maypole, tied with colorful streamers or ribbons, survived as a part of the English tradition. The kids celebrating the day by moving back and forth around the pole with the the streamers, choosing of May queen, and hanging of May baskets on the doorknobs of folks -- are all the leftovers of the old European traditions.
May Day is a time to celebrate the onset of May, the month that sees the Earth reaching itself ready to burgeon to its maximum capacity. Since the ancient days in England there prevailed a custom of "bringing in the May" on May Day. This was why people would go to the woods in the early dawn. There they picked flowers and lopped off tender branches to bring them in and decorate the houses.
May Day and flowers: It has always been strongly associated with flowers. Partly may be because of their availability in abundance. But that is not all. There are other reasons as well. For instance, the May Garland and beggar girls. Making garland is one of those ancient May Day customs that has survived still today. May garlands, is meant for the coming of summer. May garlands were also used while begging by the kids from door to door. At other times of the year begging would have been an offence. But if it was done at May time with a garland. This is why groups of small girls, crowned with leaves and flowers, went from door to door singing and begging.
Maypole dance: On the first day of May, English villagers woke up at daybreak to roam the countryside gathering blossoming flowers and branches. A towering maypole was set up on the village green. This pole, usually made of the trunk of a tall birch tree, was decorated with bright field flowers. The villagers then danced and sang around the maypole, accompanied by a piper.
May Queen: Also part of the celebration was the crowning of a May Queen. When the sun rose, the maypole was decked with leaves, flowers and ribbons while dancing and singing went on around it. The Queen was chosen from the pretty girls of the village to reign over the May Day festivities. Crowned on a flower-covered throne, she was drawn in a decorated cart by young men or her maids of honor to the village green. She would be crowned there right on the green spot. She was set in an arbor of flowers and often the dancing was performed around her, rather than around the Maypole.
Morris Dance: Another colorful feature of the this celebration was the energetic Morris dance. Groups of men dance together in costumes of traditional characters, often animal-men, in ceremonial folk dances. The central figure of the dances, usually an animal-man, varies considerably in importance. The name Morris is also associated with the horn dance held each year at Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, England. This dance-procession includes six animal-men bearing deer antlers, three white and three black sets; a man-woman, or Maid Marian, and a fool. These dances are still performed in England. And also survive in various parts of Europe, Asia, and, America. One such comparable surviving animal custom is the May Day procession of a man-horse, notably at Padstow, Cornwall. There, the central figure, "Oss Oss," is a witch doctor disguised as a horse and wearing a medicine mask. The dancers are attendants who sing the May Day song, beat drums, and in turn act the horse or dance in attendance. The name Morris is also associated with groups of mummers who act, rather than dance, the death-and-survival rite at the turn of the year.
Throughout history, the Morris seems to have been common. It was imported from village festivities into popular entertainment after the invention of the court masque by Henry VIII. The word Morris apparently derived from "morisco," meaning "Moorish." Cecil Sharp, whose collecting of Morris dances preserved many from extinction, suggested that it might have arisen from the dancers' blacking their faces as part of the necessary ritual disguise. The name Morris dance is sometimes loosely applied to sword dances in which a group of men weave their swords into intricate patterns.
Facewashing in May Dew: Washing the face with May dew was yet another custom. There was a belief among the women in Great Britain and other parts of Europe those days that May Day dew has the power to restore beauty. This why in the Ozark Mountains, a cradle of American folklore, girls used to nurture a belief that having their faces washed with the early dawn dews on the May Day would help to be married to the man of her choice.
In Hawaii the May Day is celebrated with the tradition of Lei. A festival of the natives of Hawaii, nurtured since time immemorial, Lei was officially celebrated first in 1929. Lei Day is celebrated in Hawaii instead of May Day. Schools throughout the islands crown their own kings and queens and create courts in celebration, and to honor the people and customs of Hawaii.
Though Lei is also thought to be in praise of the season of summer, it is celebrated in a very different way compared to the traditions associated with the European spring celebration.
The native islanders have some wonderful customs. They regard this day as a auspicious day. They greet the day with lei. A lei is a garland or necklace of flowers given in Hawaii as a token of welcome or farewell. Lei Day began in 1928.Leis are most commonly made of carnations, kika blossoms, ginger blossoms, jasmine blossoms, or orchids and are usually about 18 inches (46 cm) long.
Everyone gives the gift of a lei to another, putting it around the receiver's neck and accompanying it with the traditional kiss. Some Hawaiian celebrations are complete with pageants, a Lei Queen and her court.
While leaving the island a traveler customarily tosses the farewell lei onto the harbor waters. The drift of the lei back to the shore indicates that the person will someday return to the islands. The custom of wearing leis originated with the indigenous Hawaiians, who wove necklaces of leaves or ferns or sometimes strung dried shells, fruits, beads, or bright feathers for personal adornment. Hawaiians celebrate Lei Day on May 1, symbolizing their tradition of friendliness.
May Day is a name for various holidays celebrated on May 1. The holiday is most often associated with the commemoration of the social and economic achievements of the labor movement. The May 1st date is used because in 1884 the American Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions demanded an eight-hour workday, to come in effect as of May 1, 1886. This resulted in the general strike and the Haymarket Riot of 1886, but eventually also in the official sanction of the eight-hour workday.
May Day is celebrated as Labour Day in most countries around the world, including the United Kingdom. Officially proclaimed and endorsed by the Soviet Union, it is also celebrated as the Day of the International Solidarity of Workers, especially in some Communist states.
Celebrations in communist countries during the Cold War era often consisted of large military parades with the latest weaponry being exhibited as well as shows of common people in support of the government.
Curiously (given the origin of the May 1st date), the United States celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday of September; May 1st is Loyalty Day in the United States. There is some suggestion that the reason for this was to avoid the commemoration of riots that had occurred in 1886. The adoption of May Day by Communists and socialists as their primary holiday further cemented official resistance to sanctioning May Day labor celebrations in America.
Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands also celebrate Labour Day on different dates, that has to do with how the holiday originated in those countries.
May Day has long been a focal point for demonstrations by various Communist, socialist, and anarchist groups.
Berlin, Germany traditionally has yearly demonstrations on May Day. There is little political or religious connection to the Walpurgisnacht celebrations that are traditional on the night before May Day in the Brocken mountains. The Berlin demonstrations became yearly riots during the 1980s. While left wing socialist groups still demonstrate on May Day, it has also become a focal point for the NPD (Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschland), an extreme right wing nationalist party, and for Neo-Nazis. Some Burschenschaft (university fraternities) are also connected to the NPD. The NPDs most likely choose May 1st to demonstrate to antagonize the left wing socialists by appropriating their holiday. Streetfighting frequently occurs between the right wing Neo-Nazis and NPD and the strongly anti-Nazi and anti-nationalist left wing demonstrators, often associated with the punk rock subculture.
As the years went on, the Berlin May Day rioting has become less overtly political and more oriented towards generally destructive behavior by individuals with little interest in politics, though political demonstrators are still a factor. Berlin rioters have been dealt with severely by police, though in recent years an official nonescalation policy was implemented, which seems to have reduced the overall level of May Day violence in Berlin.
The month of May was come,
when every lusty heart beginneth to blossom,
and to bring forth fruit; for like as herbs and trees bring
forth fruit and flourish in May, in likewise every lusty heart that
is in any manner a lover, springeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds.
For it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.
Sir Thomas Malory, 1485
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