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May Day, recognized annually on May 1, is an ancient festival that celebrates the beauty of spring after months of cold, wintery weather. Sunshine and warmth breathe new life into people around the world who wholeheartedly partake in different versions of May Day festivities that include singing, dancing, and general merrymaking. With traditions dating back to medieval Europe, May Day is now celebrated around the world. Here’s how the spring season is honored in different countries.
England celebrates May Day in the way many people imagine. There’s singing, young people dancing and weaving ribbons around a traditional maypole, and the crowning of a May Queen. The festival stems from an ancient pagan ritual that celebrates the Earth’s renewed fertility and the changing of the seasons. For this reason, May Day decorations typically include flowers, plants, and trees that honor nature. The gifting of May baskets is another old tradition that still prevails today in England. Stuffed with fresh-picked flowers and other small treats and sweets, these handcrafted baskets are typically left on the doorsteps of friends and family as a surprise. It’s even customary to ring the recipient’s doorbell or knock, and then run off!
Scotland and Ireland
Present-day May Day traditions in Scotland and Ireland originated from the ancient Celtic Beltane fire festival. In medieval times, the Celts believed the sun was held hostage during the dark and cold winter months. Festivities on May 1 included lighting bonfires to welcome the sun back to Earth. Today, many ancient traditions are still followed to invite the summer season, celebrate the renewed fertility of the land, and honor the cycles of nature. Calton Hill in the Scottish capital of Edinburgh hosts a modern-day revival of Beltane on the eve of May 1, which includes a drum procession, theatrical performance between the May Day Queen and “Green Man,” and the ultimate lighting of the bonfire. The festival wraps with food, drinks, dancing, and plenty of merrymaking.
After a long winter, it’s no wonder that Germany goes all out on May Day. Locally referred to as Walpurgisnacht (also known as Walpurgis Night or Saint Walpurgis Night), this springtime celebration in Germany is similar to the spooky holiday of Halloween. According to folklore, witches and warlocks used to meet on the highest peak in the Harz Mountains on the eve of April 30 for a night of bonfires and dancing to usher in the spring season and welcome new life. May Day traditions in Germany today include partiers dressing up in costumes, pranking one another, lighting bonfires, and making plenty of noise to help ward off any evil spirits that might be lurking in the mountains.
May 1 is officially known as Lei Day in Hawaii and has been a statewide holiday since 1929. Although the holiday involves flowers, Lei Day is less of a spring celebration and instead focuses on spreading the Aloha spirit since Hawaii has a tropical climate year-round. Leis (flower necklaces) are gifted to friends and family and a day and night of traditional Hawaiian dancing, singing, feasting, and performances are enjoyed by locals.
United States and Worldwide
While many countries have adopted some traditions from the medieval European celebration of spring, May Day has other significance in the United States, United Kingdom, and dozens of other countries around the world. Also known as International Workers’ Day, May 1 marks an important date in history for workers worldwide.
In the late 19th century, workers gathered around the world to protest unfair working conditions and lobby for an eight-hour work day. The peaceful protests were marred by the tragic Haymarket Affair in Chicago on May 4, 1886, illustrating the intensity of the struggle for workers’ rights around the world. Oddly enough, May Day is not really observed in the U.S. these days. Instead, Labor Day takes its place in September. On the first day of May in the U.S., it’s more common to see schools and young children planning a May Day celebration, coordinating maypole dances, and crafting May baskets as school projects.
In Finland, May 1 is known as Vappu Day and is arguably the most important Finnish holiday. Combining the importance of International Workers’ Day with the joy of leaving the winter season behind, Finnish people start the party on April 30 and celebrate well into the wee hours of May 1. In the 19th century, Finnish engineering students started getting in on the celebrations (complete with their white student hats), which launched a nationwide interest in the holiday, particularly among university students.
Nowadays, May Day in Finland has morphed into a full-fledged carnival with plenty of mead-drinking, doughnut-eating, and raucous partying. Students in Helsinki kick off the holiday off by gathering in Market Square, wearing their white student hats, and washing a statue named Havis Amanda (she also receives a white hat) before indulging in huge outdoor picnics with plenty of food and beer.
Italians put a fun twist on traditional May Day festivities. While May 1 is officially known as La Festa dei Lavoratori (Workers’ Day) in Italy, the first full weekend of May comes alive with a more lighthearted celebration. In towns like Assisi, you’ll find lively parties commemorating Calendimaggio (May Day). Assisi throws a medieval-themed party complete with men dressed up in armor wielding swords and shields as they compete in horseback-riding challenges and archery games to win the attention of the damsels. Spring is a common theme throughout Calendimaggio, with the streets decorated with flowers and theatrical and musical events taking place throughout the day. Bonfires carry the party into the evening with plenty of food and drinks to go around.