The Evolution of May Day
The Evolution of May Day

by Linda Kerr

Although not a popular holiday in America today, May Day was celebrated in Europe throughout the Middle Ages on May 1, continuing into the early part of this century in some places. May Day developed from a melding of two seemingly unlike Spring festivals: the Roman Floralia, and the Celtic fire festival, Beltinne. "There is also a theory that the May Day festivals find their origin in the phallic festivals of India and Egypt when the renewal of the fertility of nature in the spring was celebrated." (Douglas, 252)

Are there really any pagan origins to May Day? Or are we just romanticizing an ancient holiday, dressing it up to suit ourselves? I have attempted, with a bit of research, to settle these questions, and I have found that some of our 'May Day' customs are a lot newer than we think, but some do have roots in antiquity. By necessity, not everything I found is in this article; if you are interested in pursuing the subject, see the notes at the end.

May 1 was when the Tuatha de Danaan, a superhuman race who evolved into the Irish pantheon, first arrived in Ireland, making this one of the most important Irish festivals -- second only to Samhain, celebrated on November 1. Beltinne, or Beltane, was most probably a pastoral holiday, marking the beginning of the season when the cattle could be driven to open grazing. The name comes from the sun god, Bel, and the Celtic word for fire, tinne.

Fires were lighted at Beltane at the beginning of Samhradh, or summer. It was considered lucky for young folks to jump over the flames, or for cattle to be driven between two fires. (Bonwick, 206) The gorse on the hills was set afire, and the smoke blew over the fields and purified them, and the people drove their cattle between them as a protection from disease. When these and other rites had been observed, "then the fields were ready to put the cattle on the grass." (Whitlock, 73, quoting Margaret Killip, Folklore of the Isle of Man, 1975)

In some of the surviving customs of the Highlands, we still see hints of sacrifices. In Scotland till the 18th century, according to Bonwick, "The people lighted the fire by the old fashion [method] of friction with two pieces of wood, and then ate the consecrated cake indulged in by pagan Syrians...This was broken up, and distributed among the assembly. Whoever got the black bit, hidden in the cake, was considered worthy of sacrifice to Baal, as the cailteach bealtine. He was pushed into the fire, though soon rescued, and afterwards had to leap three times through the flames. The term Beltane carline was ever a name of reproach." (Bonwick, 207-208)

Ralph Whitlock says, "There seem here to be faint reminiscences of former human sacrifices, no doubt performed to help the fertility of the soil and so produce a good harvest. It is recorded that when Bishop Hugh Latimer was burnt at the stake in October 1555, a spectator was heard to remark that it was a pity that the event could not have been staged earlier in the season, when it could have saved the crops!" (Whitlock, 73-74)

The Roman flower festival of Floralia, or Floral Games, was instituted in Rome in 283 B.C., and was celebrated from April 28 through May 3. (Douglas, 252) This festival was in honor of Flora, goddess of flowers and vegetation. The worship of a goddess of fertility, not surprisingly, led increasingly to much license and indecency; prostitutes claimed the Floralia as their feast. (Scullard, 110)

The Roman Spring festival was probably introduced in Great Britain during the four to five centuries of Roman occupation there, (Douglas, 252) and juxtaposed over the old Celtic fire festival of Beltane. While in parts of the British Isles (Scotland and Ireland especially) the celebrations kept to their Celtic origins, England and most of Europe, particularly the countries nearer to the Mediterranean area, were influenced by the Floralia. Therefore, although Beltane seems to have been a sacred time of cleansing and protection, May Day became a festival of fertility and sexual license.

May Day Characters
As the combined Spring festivals took form in the Middle Ages, a few prominent figures appeared. The most important was the May Queen. She was said to be the earthly representa tion of the Roman goddess Flora, (Hazlitt, 401) although I don't know if the Floralia actually included such a figure. The May Queen was selected by the townspeople as the most beautiful among the young women, and she took her place in a throne of flowers to preside over the activities of the day.

In the early Middle Ages the May Queen had a consort, the May King, or the Lord of the May. He was known in parts of England and Lowland Scotland as 'Robin Hood'; although this may connect him with the pagan wood-sprite 'Robin' or 'Robin Goodfellow,' alias Puck, rather than the legendary outlaw. (Kightly, 160) He may also be connected to the Roman god of woods and wildlife, Faunus; (Scullard, 201) a sort of counterpart to Flora.

In the late Middle Ages, the May King gave way to the Green Man, Green George, or Jack-in-the-Green. He represented the vegetation; the crops, and was played by a man covered all in branches, as if a living, walking tree. "In England, he takes the form of a man encased in a high wickerwork cage which completely covers him, and is in its turn entirely smothered in green branches, leaves, and flowers. Only his eyes are visible, looking through a hole cut in the cage to enable him to see, and his feet below the level of the wickerwork." (Hole, 113) He is the Summer itself, the very old bringer-in of the time of plenty.

Jack-in-the-Green remained an important figure in many British celebrations. One of these is called Garland King Day, which takes place in Castleton in Derbyshire on May 29 (Oak Apple Day). This is supposedly a celebration of the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, although it is obviously much older in origin than this, and is probably a transferred May Day rite. The Garland King, who bears a striking resemblance to the Green Man, rides at the head of a procession all around the village. On top of his greenery is a posey of flowers, known as the Queen. Following the King is another person on horseback, simply called "The Woman;" a man in woman's dress. (Hole, 79)

Other Characters
The Hobby Horse appears at various times of the year, especially Halloween, Christmas, and May Day; and usually in connection with the Morris Dancers. It seems to be a creature of luck and fertility, and may be a remnant of the Celtic sun-god to whom the horse was sacred. "It is probable that men disguised as horses played an important part in pagan rituals, particularly those of the horse-worshipping Anglo-Saxons." (Kightly, 139) The Hobby Horse takes part in a parade with the other May Day characters, at the end of which he 'dies,' but is later resurrected to join in the feasting. (Whitlock, 65)

Padstow and Minehead lay claim to the two most famous Hobby Horses in England. The Padstow 'Obby Oss' "wears a hoop-shaped frame, about six feet around, and covered with a black tarpaulin, which completely hides his human form. In front of the hoop is a small, wooden horse's head, with snapper jaws, but the horseman's own head is hidden by a ferocious-looking mask, surmounted by a tall, conical cap." (Hole, 133) He dances through the streets, chasing the girls, and sometimes corners one of them against a wall and covers her with his huge skirt. This is supposed to bring her a husband, or a baby within the year if she is already married. The inside of the cloth was smeared with soot, which left a mark on the girl of the good fortune to come. (Hole, 134)

The Minehead Horse has a more festive appearance, and is also longer rather than round. He is called the 'Sailors Horse,' and indeed, if not for an attached tail, would look more like a ship than a horse. This fact may be significant; "One Padstow legend ascribes the May Day festivities to rejoicing over the defeat of a shipload of French invaders during the Napoleonic wars, while another Minehead story maintains that the parade of the Hobby Horse commemorates a victory over the Danes, who also came by ship." (Whitlock, 66)

The Morris Dancers, like the Hobby Horse, were seen at other times of the year, dressed in white shirts and knee-breeches, flower-decked hats, and adorned with bells, bright ribbons, and handkerchiefs; a 17th century Morris costume in Perth Museum has no less than 252 bells, carefully tuned in twenty-one harmonizing sets of twelve. (Kightly, 168) (The costume of the dancers seems to suggest magical over-tones; the bells and ribbons to scare fairies away, or in pre-Christian times, to communicate with the fairies.)

There were several different versions of the dance; at Winster near Matlock, a 16 man team was divided into 'men's' and 'women's' sides, and accompanied by a whole range of extra characters more often associated with mumming plays: a 'King,' a male 'Queen,' a 'Fool,' a Hobby Horse, and a black-faced 'Witch'. (Kightly, 170) In other counties -- Yorkshire, Northumberland, and Durham -- the morris dance proper gave way to the quite different sword dance, which was also known as 'morris.' However, Kightly tells us that the sword dance was performed at Christmas and on Plough Monday (January 6), not on May Day. (Kightly, 170, 215)

Although the Morris Dances are a central part of the May Day celebrations today in England, due to a revival earlier this century, they were a late-comer to the medieval festivities, and their origins have been much speculated upon. The name 'morris' is almost certainly derived from 'Moorish,' and is thought to indicate that the dance originated either in North Africa or in Moorish medieval Spain, from where it was supposed to have been brought to Britain around the 12th century. This theory (allegedly corroborated by the blackening of performers' faces) is likely not true, as nothing like the English dance has ever been discovered in the Moorish lands. "Given the inherent improbability of an imported custom penetrating so deeply and widely into medieval folk culture, it therefore seems likely that the dance was really an ancient native ceremony, whose exponents disguised themselves by the cheap, easy and remarkably effective method of face-blacking: and that it subsequently acquired its title from this practice...In all probability...the dance originated as a pre-Christian fertility or luck-bringing ceremony, and it is even possible that the name 'moorish' once alluded to its pagan rather than its black-faced associations." (Kightly, 168)

The May Pole
According to Barbara Walker, the Maypole was not originally European, but finds its origins in the phallic festivals of India and Egypt, celebrating the fertility of the spring. (Douglas, 252; Walker, 625) The May Pole was an obvious sexual object, representing the planting of the god's phallus in the earth's womb, (Walker, 625) and was sometimes painted in an upward clockwise spiral with red and white paint, similar to a barber's pole. (Hole, 137. In Hazlitt, pg 402, a black and yellow painted May- pole is described.)

Whatever its origin, the May-pole became part of the European May Day/Flora activities. In the "British Apollo" it is said: "It was a custom among the ancient Britons, before converted to Christianity, to erect there May-poles, adorned with flowers, in honour of the Goddess Flora." (Hazlitt, 402)

Stuckely says, "There is a May Pole near Horn Castle, Lincolnshire, where probably stood an Hermes [herm, phallic pillar] in Roman times. The boys annually keep up the festival of the Floralia on May Day, making a procession to this hill with May gads (as they call them) in their hands. This is a white willow wand, the bark peel'd off, ty'd round with cowslips, a thyrsus of the Bacchanals. At night they have a bonefire, and other merriment, which is really a sacrifice, a religious festival." (Hazlitt, 402, quoting Stuckely, "Itinerarium," 1724, pg. 29.)

In addition to the obvious phallic symbolism, the May Pole represents a tree, and indeed at one time it was a tree, brought in from the woods on May morning and set up on the village green. (Hole, 136) This tree is said to have always been a birch, (Hazlitt, 402) or sometimes a hawthorn. As the tree evolved into a permanent pole set up in the town square, a bit of hawthorn was placed on top to represent the original living tree.

These permanent poles were very tall, sometimes 80 or 90 feet; "The Church of St Andrew Undershaft, in Leadenhall Street, was so named because the great Maypole which annually stood before its south door was taller than the church itself." (Hole, 137) Christina Hole reminds us: "The shorter poles, round which the children perform a plaited-ribbon dance, and which are often seen at school May Day celebrations today, do not belong to the English tradition. They come from southern Europe, and seem to have been introduced into this country (by Ruskin) in 1888." (Hole, 137)

"The May Day customs offended the Puritans and the Parliament of 1644 forbade the erection of May poles. This prohibition was repealed after the Restoration [of Charles II in 1660]. In 1661, in celebration of the revival of the old customs a May pole 134 feet high was set up in London. It remained until 1717 when it was bought by Sir Isaac Newton and removed to Essex as a support for his great telescope." (Douglas, 253)

Other May Day Customs
We see some of the Roman legacy of sexual freedom in the tradition of young people going a-Mayin': in the early hours of May Day, "they goe some to the woodes and groves, some to the hilles and mountaines...where they spende all the night in pastymes, and in the mornyng they returne, bringing with them birch, bowes, and braunches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall...I have heard it credibly reported...that of fourtie, three score, or a hundred maides goying to the woode ouer night, there have scarcely the thirde parte of them returned home againe undefiled." (Hazlitt, 398, quoting Stubbes' "Anatomy of Abuses," 1583.)

In another popular custom throughout the Middle Ages, the common and noble women alike went to bathe their faces in the dew of the May morning, which was thought to be good for the complexion. Pepys wrote in his "Diary," under May 28, 1667: "My wife away down with Jane and W. Hewer to Woolwich, in order to a little ayre and to lie there tomorrow, and so to gather May-dew tomorrow morning, which Mrs. Turner hath taught her is the only thing in the world to wash her face with; and I am contented with it." (Hazlitt, 400) Although the dew of every morning in May was effective, that of May Day itself was the best. In 1515 Queen Catherine of Aragon went out with 25 of her ladies to gather dew on May 1st. (Hazlitt, 400) Even the great Oliver Cromwell himself was not above making use of May dew on medical advice.

Another custom, necessarily confined to small, tightly-knit villages, was the May Birching. These 'May Birchers' used to go on their secret rounds at dawn on May Day, affixing branches of trees on the doors of their neighbors' houses. "A flowering branch of hawthorn was always a compliment, but any other thorn denoted that someone in the house was an object of scorn." (Hole, 128) Rowan, or wicken, was a sign of affection. Briar, holly, plum, and alder, stood for liar, folly, glum, and scowler, respectively. "This distribution of 'birches' represented the honest opinions of the villagers, and when it was uncomplimentary, it was intended to serve as a warning to the erring or the foolish." (Hole, 128)

The Goths and Southern Swedes had a May Day custom that found its way to the Isle of Man, where the Danes and Norwegians had reigned for a long time. This ceremony marked the beginning of Spring for the Manx people, up until the late 18th century. In this custom, the Queen of the May, played by a young woman, is approached by the Queen of Winter, played by a man dressed in women's clothes; who challenges the right of the May Queen to rule. The companies of the two engage in a mock battle, and if the May Queen is defeated, she is held for ransom and rescued by her people. The followers of the Queen of Winter then depart to hold their celebration in some dark, secluded place. (Hole, 135; Hazlitt, 397)

By the 18th century, most of the medieval May Day festivities had died out. Only the southern English urban milkmaids, who appeared on May Day bearing May Garlands hung about with borrowed silverware, and chimney sweeps, whose specialty was 'Jack-in-the-Green', kept them from dying out completely. By the mid-19th century, the festivities were revived, thanks to the romantic Victorians. They purged the festival of its 'grosser elements;' replacing the beautiful May Queen with a schoolgirl, refurbishing Maypoles with ribbons for children to dance around, and essentially turning the holiday into a "pretty affair for children." (Kightly, 160)

Furry Day
A last surviving custom is Furry Day in Helston, Cornwall, which falls on May 8, and which, according to Kightly, is "one of the most famous of all traditional British festivals." (Kightly, 121)

Furry Day has been called through the centuries, variously, Flora, Faddy, or Furry Day, and seems to be a vaguely remembered form of the original Roman Floralia. The word 'furry' is probably derived from the Cornish feur, or fer, a fair, rejoicing, or 'holy-day,' and 'Faddy' from an old English word, fade, meaning to go, and especially to go forward in a dance." (Hole, 75)

Although it claims separate origins, Furry Day at some point became mingled with the May Day festivities. One of its main elements is the old maying processional called the 'Hal-an- Tow,' in which people go out to the woods early in the morning to gather greenery to decorate homes and buildings and carry through the streets. (Hole, 75)

Furry Day's other main theme, Furry Dancing, was well-established by 1602, and is probably related to the Hal-an-Tow processional. (Kightly, 122-123) The towns-people, dressed in their finest clothes, gather about mid-day and dance hand-in-hand through the town, accompanied by young men dressed as St. Michael and St. George, Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, and Little John. They dance down the main streets, into gardens, shops, and houses; in one door and out another, to bring the luck of Summer to the owners and tenants, and drive out the darkness of Winter. (Hole, 75)

"The ancient origins of the festival show clearly in the green boughs gathered so early and carried about...and in the never-omitted luck-bringing visits. If any pre-Christian ancestor of today's dancers could return on Furry Day now, he would probably have little difficulty in recognizing the descendants of those rites by which he, too, once brought the Summer home, and carried luck and fertility to every homestead." (Hole, 76)

"It was my hap of late, by chance,
To meet a Country Morris Dance,
When, cheefest of them all, the Foole
Plaied with a ladle and a toole;
When every younger shak't his bells
Till sweating feet gave fothing smells;
And fine Maide Marian with her smoile,
Shew'd how a rascall plaid the roile:
But, when the Hobby-horse did wihy,
Then all the wenches gave a tihy:
But when they gan to shake their boxe,
And not a goose could catch a foxe,
The piper then put up his pipes,
And all the woodcocks look't like snipes,
And therewith fell a show'ry streame..." (From Cobbe's Prophicies, his Signes and Tokens, his Madrigall, Questions, and Answers, 1614)


Bonwick, James. Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions. 1986. (Originally published in 1894). Dorset Press, England.
Cobbe's Prophicies, his Signes and Tokens, his Madrigall, Questions, and Answers, 1614.
Douglas, George William. The American Book of Days. 1948. The H.W. Wilson Co., New York, NY.
Frazer, James. The Golden Bough, and McNeill, Marian. The Silver Bough, Vol. 2.

Hazlitt, W. Carew. Faiths and Folklore of the British Isles. Vol. II. 1965. Benjamin Blom, Inc., New York, NY.
Hole, Christina. British Folk Customs. 1976. Hutchinson and Co. Ltd., London.
Kightly, Charles. The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain. 1986. Thames and Hudson, London.
Killip, Margaret, Folklore of the Isle of Man, 1975.
Scullard, H.H. Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman Republic. 1981. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.
Stubbes' "Anatomy of Abuses," 1583.
Stuckely, "Itinerarium," 1724.
Walker, Barbara G. The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. 1983. Harper & Row, San Francisco, CA.
Whitlock, Ralph. A Calendar of Country Customs. 1978. B.T. Batsford Ltd., London.
Back to main page