The Multiple Meanings of May Day: From Ancient Traditions to College Celebrations

Maypole wrapping in 2005 at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where May Day festivities are an annual tradition. Image via Mike Goren via Wikimedia Commons

I vaguely remember occasionally celebrating May Day as a kid. We learned a bit about the Maypole at school, and once or twice we delivered May Baskets to friends with my grandmother. But the “holiday” was never really understood or observed. Out of sheer curiosity, I later discovered May Day’s ancient history, more contemporary forms, and the reasons why we no longer celebrate it – in the United States anyway.

There are, of course, various explanations of May Day available to the avid Googler, but it seems we can settle on a few facts. First, the first of May is one of the four “cross-quarter” days and has astronomical meaning as the mid-way point between the spring equinox and summer solstice. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans marked the first of May as the end of winter and beginning of summer, and organized large celebrations centered around agricultural practices to ensure the fertility of crops. The Romans also honored Flora, the goddess of flowers, to represent new growth and fertility. Such gatherings also involved dramatic performances, the selection of a May Queen, and various competitions.

As these traditions made their way north in Europe, they collided with the Celtic fire ritual of Beltane. The term Beltane literally means “the return of the sun” and was marked with large bonfires around which people, largely in Ireland and Scotland, would dance and run their livestock to welcome the sun back from its long winter imprisonment. Other May Day traditions (known as Walpurgis) were common across other parts of northern Europe and Germany.

Because these traditions had their roots in pagan customs, they were eventually abolished as Christianity spread across the European continent. But by the mid-17th century they returned, particularly in England, Ireland and Scotland under King Charles II. The primary tradition from the ancient period that persisted into the modern era is the decorating of a Maypole with brightly colored ribbons and flowers to represent the coming summer.

1967 Soviet propaganda postcard Photo by totallymystified on Flickr

By the late 19th century, however, May Day became a symbol of worker’s rights and a labor holiday in much of Europe. The roots of the worker’s movement that claimed this day, however, are in the United States. In 1886, a labor protest in Chicago led to a bombing and bloody massacre in Haymarket Square. What came to be known as the Haymarket Affair spawned a global movement for an eight-hour workday and other labor protections, as well as the declaration in 1889 by the International Socialist Conference that May 1st would be designated International Workers’ Day.

With the advent of anti-communist sentiment in the United States in the mid-20th century, the celebration of May Day faded away. By 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower declared May 1st “Loyalty Day.” Shortly thereafter, few could even remember the May Day celebrations of spring or the delivery of May baskets to family, friends, and potential sweethearts.

Most recently, I stumbled upon some of the college traditions associated with May Day that are still celebrated today. Beltane has made a comeback in the UK after a student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland began a May Day music festival in 1987 that attracts tens of thousands of enthusiasts each year. The burning of a 30-foot “wicker man” is drawing large crowds in the UK as well. Students at St. Andrews University in Scotland gather at the North Sea the evening of April 30th for an all night celebration and a May Dip into the frigid water at sunrise on May 1st. Oxford University students in Magdalen College celebrate May Morning, which sometimes involves jumping from Magdalen Bridge into the Cherwell River, leading to a few injuries as well.

In the United States, colleges and universities are also celebrating May Day with various traditional and even risqué rituals. James Madison University decorated a Maypole and selected a May Queen throughout most of the 20th century, before such gatherings “died a natural death” in the 1960s. May Day celebrations suffered the same fate at Wheaton College. Bluffton University has been celebrating May Day since 1910, and continues to do so today with dances around Maypoles and the honoring of graduating seniors as they end one chapter of their lives and begin another. Traditional May Day celebrations at Mount Holyoke College have evolved since they were first recorded on campus in 1896. Today, Mount Holyoke students celebrate “Pangy Day,” which marks the end of spring semester classes, with dancing around the Maypole and picnicking across campus. And perhaps the most noted May Day celebration on a college campus is that which occurs every year since the mid-1960s at Washington College, involving Maypole dancing, strawberry eating, and naked streaking through town. Alumni even write nostalgically about their Washington College May Day memories.

So now you know the bare truth about this often confusing and misunderstood day called May Day. No matter how you celebrated (or didn’t celebrate) this week, you can rest assured that spring classes are soon coming to an end and summer holidays are on their way. Perhaps most would agree that the coming break from the academic year is much anticipated and well deserved. Enjoy!

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