May Day is an ancient pagan holiday celebrated in the British Isles by the Druids. It celebrates the Spring and the fertility of livestock and crops. The ancient holiday was called “Beltaine” (Bright Fires), which began at sundown of April 28 and continued for three days in which the Druid priests lit a fire on top of a hill and people jumped through them naked. During May Day, the villagers would go into the forest and cut down a tree. The tree was often a willow tree because it was associated with the Roman Goddess of the Hunt. The villagers would stay in the forest during the night and liaisons between men and women would happen that would not normally be deemed acceptable during the rest of the year. Then during the day they would bring it to the village and decorate it with flowers, ribbons and a wreath of flowers is placed on top. A dance is done around the May Pole. The dancers hold the end of the ribbons and dance around the pole until the ribbons are woven around the pole. Then the wreath of flowers is placed on one of the girl’s head, crowning her queen for the day. There are many different versions of the May Pole dance. There always needs to be an even number of dancers that hold a ribbon tightly. There are two circles of dancers. The outer circle faces clockwise and the inner circle faces counter-clockwise. They dance in a circle in the direction that they are facing so that inner circle has to duck under the ribbons of the outer circle. The ribbon gets woven around the pole. During the celebrations, Morris dancers who are bedecked in flowers and bells around their ankles, perform several dances. One of which is an interpretation of the Eucharist.
During the sixteenth century, May Poles were banned in England and in America because of their pagan roots. The Puritans in America banned May Day in 1644 because of its pagan roots and since so many women became pregnant during this holiday. Starting in 1660, May Day was celebrated again. During the Victorian Era, May Day celebrated innocence rather than fertility.
In Europe, especially in Germany, May Day is similar to Labor Day in the United States. May Day was not associated with a Christian Holiday and thus it there was not a church service attached to it and so it was solely a secular festival day. Often people took the day off without prior consent from their employers. Thus it became a people’s day and became rooted in the socialist calendar. Now it is an official bank holiday in Germany and many other countries.
On About.com there is a great slideshow of people setting up the Maypole and then dancers dancing around it. http://healing.about.com/od/dance/ss/maypoledance.htm
By Robert Herrick
THE May-pole is up,
Now give me the cup,
I'll drink to the garlands around it;
But first unto those
whose hands did compose
The glory of flowers that crown'd it.
A health to my girls,
Whose husbands may earls
Or lords be, granting my wishes,
when that ye wedTo the bridal bed,
Then multiply all, like to fishes.
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Parties and Entertaining, Parties and Holidays, May Day