Britain celebrates May Day to see summer in
The wettest April in over a century has come to an end. Today, festivities celebrate the spring and activists call for strikes: it is May Day – a time of tradition and transition.
Unusual things are afoot around Britain today. In rural villages, children will wind ribbons around flower-covered maypoles; Morris dancers with jingling bells and tattered coats will dance their strange, warlike dance in town squares; In Oxford, students will throw themselves into a river to a dawn chorus of medieval hymns.
This is the festival of May Day, celebrated for centuries all over Europe as the beginning of summer, when rainy April gives way to the new growth and life of warmer months.
The revelry goes back a long way – to Roman times, in fact. Then, youths paid respects to Flora, the goddess of flowers and plants, by playing games and setting symbols of fertility, like hare or deer, loose in the countryside. Some festivities were not suitable for children: naked prostitutes would frequently perform in public plays.
At the same time of year, pagan s in Ancient Britain celebrated the druidic festival of Beltane, driving their cattle between two bonfires to ‘purify’ the herd by the light of the moon. Often, worshippers burnt a symbolic wicker man, or even – according to some accounts – a real human sacrifice.
That sinister side has an enduring appeal today. In the 1973 horror movie Wicker Man, A Christian’s visit to a modern pagan May Day descends into a nightmare of violence, sex and murder.
And other European traditions are equally dark. In many countries, the first day of May coincides with Walpurgisnacht – when witches, according to legend, gather for revelry on Germany’s Brocken mountain.
In the political world, too, May Day is marked by chaos and violence. Today is International Workers Day: a flashpoint of protest ever since thousands of American workers went on strike on May 1st 1886 to demand an eight hour working day.
Their famous struggle inspired huge mass strikes in 1968 Paris, anti-capitalist demonstrations in 2000, and angry protests against austerity in today’s recession-hit Greece. Often rioting and destruction has resulted – recalling the wild atmosphere of May Day celebrations of the past.
Not everyone enjoys the more sinister side of May Day. Today should be a happy day, they say. A chance to enjoy sunshine, flowers and the lazy approach of summer. It is about new life – not death and violence.
Strong, destructive forces are just as important to spring as blossom and birdsong, others say. In nature, without sex, violence and death there could be no rebirth. It is the delicate balance of creation and destruction that makes May Day so intoxicating.
- Should May Day just be about celebrating happy things?
- In a world of iPads and the internet, is a traditional pagan festival really relevant?
- Invent your own May Day celebration – how would you see in the summer?
- Read Christina Rossetti’s poemMay. Write a short paragraph about the message it communicates about the balance of sadness and joy in springtime.
Some People Say...
“There’s no point in old traditions.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why do we get a day off for May Day?
- Many countries around the world take a day off for International Workers’ Day. But in the UK, it has only been a public holiday since 1978 – when it was established by the left-wing Labour Government.
- So it’s been politically threatening in the past?
- Absolutely. In 17th Century Britain, the rulingPuritan s were outraged at ungodly May Day practices like drinking and dancing: by 1664, they had even outlawed maypoles.
- What about now?
- Today’s Conservative led government has proposed changing the date of the May bank holiday to October – supposedly to extend the British holiday season. But some commentators think ministers dislike the left-wing connotations of May Day, and want to reduce the potential for protest and publicity.
- Morris Dancing
- A form of English traditional dancing that includes rhythmic stepping to music, with bells and ribbons used as accessories. The term Morris dancing is said to derive from ‘Moorish dancing’, developed when a Spanish king drove Moors – Muslim settlers – out of Spain, and invented the dance to celebrate. Some Morris enthusiasts still use swords, in memory of the dance’s violent origins.
- Paganism is a general term, historically applied to ancient beliefs in many gods, rather than the single, God of Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Roman and Greek gods followed polytheistic pagan beliefs, with different gods representing different areas of life, as did the Celts and Druids of ancient Britain. Modern Pagans believe in adapted versions of these ideas, often with a focus on nature.
- Puritanism is a form of Protestant Christianity, that puts a strong stress on personal understanding of the Bible and simple forms of worship – excluding lavish decoration and symbols in churches. It became a dominant religious and political force in England after the English Civil War of 1642, before losing power with the Reformation of 1660.
- The German legend’s contrast between spring and the supernatural makes fertile ground for some grim perversions of growth and rebirth. In Goethe’s 19th Century play Faust, the hero is distracted by the devilish sexual depravity of the witches’ Sabbath – while his despairing and abandoned young lover is forced to drown their baby.