Re-Inventing May Day - Our Springtime Celebrations and their Roman Origin

I just took my morning walk and enjoyed the light green leaves unfurling on the trees .... The trees come alive here in the first weeks of May where I live.

This is why May Day and the Maypole celebration are so appealing to me. The tradition of Dancing around the Maypole  is a true Springtime ritual and has its roots in ancient history.

The ancient Romans honored their god, Attis, on March 22  by wrapping a sacred pine tree in linen and violets. They then carried it in a procession to the hilltop temple of Cybele, and, after solemn observance, celebrated merrily and placed bits of wool on the tree. 

Sale Elementary School and their Maypole

When the Romans occupied the British Isles. they brought this Springtime festival with them.

According to E. O. James' description, the Attis ceremony was recreated by the youths in old Europe who cut down a tree, lopped off the branches leaving a few at the top, wrapped it with violets like the ancient Romans did, and at sunrise, carried it back to their villages by blowing horns and flutes.  After this the villagers would dance and sing around this maypole, circling back and forth around the pole with colorful streamers. This pole became brightly decorated and braided with all the streamers.

 In time, each village vied with one another on May 1 to see who could produce the tallest and most elaborate Maypole. The poles were usually set up for the day in small towns, but in London and the larger towns the Maypoles were erected permanently.

at the Virginia Renaissance Faire

May Day was also a Druid ritual day, the festival of Beltane. It was thought that this day ended the dormant half of the year (which began on Nov. 1, Samhain) and began the growing half of the year...

by Eveleyn De Morgan - Flora, Roman Goddess of Flowers

The Europeans also adopted the Roman  five day celebration called FLORALIA - dedicated to the worship of Flora, the goddess of flowers.  Thus, many of today's May Day customs such as choosing  the May queen and hanging May baskets of flowers on doorknobs could be the result of the Romans' 5 day flower festival....

You might say Europe's May Day is the result of the ancient Roman occupation!

Maurice Prendergast - May Day in Central Park,
In the United States we don't have a strong May Day celebration because the May day observance was discouraged by the founding Puritans. But in France the May Tree became the "Tree of Liberty" and became the symbol of the French Revolution. This, in turn, became the day of the workers' festivals in Europe.

by Boris Kustodiev - May Day celebration in

So gradually the pagan Spring celebrations were co-opted by various religious and political groups...

But first and foremost May Day is a celebration of Spring renewal and perhaps that is what our Earth Day is now becoming.... a re-invention of our lost Springtime celebrations.

Long Live May Day, the Maypole, the May Queen  and the celebration of new life!


  1. Jan I think I love May Day because it symbolizes the flush of spring flowers that I love so much and my birthday is in May...I think I need to create a ritual to keep these wonderful celebrations going...I love all the history behind it and thx for bringing it to us...

  2. To begin, I was born on May 1--1934--to insure my gardening genes no doubt. In 1946 I danced a maypole dance at Franklin elementary school in Schenectady, wearing a crepe paper costume (very unbecoming--I have a snapshot to prove it).

    My college, Keuka, then a women's college in the Finger Lakes, held a May Day celebration every year, and the queen was brought to the site of the crowning in a canoe. There was also May 1 delivery of May baskets, the song lyrics being "There's baskets of flowers/Outside your door/Wake up! Wake up! and see the May!"

  3. Wow ...a crepe paper costume - cute. We did not celebrate May Day in NYC schools.I think that is a shame. No May Queen..its all historical to me and to you it is a vivid memory!

  4. Wow! I really learned a lot by reading your article. Thanks a lot.


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