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Early May Bank Holiday

Two Different Origins

May Day, officially known as Early May Day Bank Holiday, is a combination of two holidays in the UK:

  • May Day is an ancient celebration of spring, rebirth, and fertility.
  • International Workers’ Day, also known as Labour Day, is about workers’ rights.
  • Ancient Spring Celebrations

    May 1 or May Day is an ancient celebration of spring and the rebirth taking place in nature. Many ancient British customs associated with the day come from the old Roman festival of Floralia, where the people wore colorful clothes and were pelted with beans and flowers—symbols of fertility.

    In the United Kingdom, May Day traditions—some of which are more than 2000 years old—are still alive in many towns and villages. The ancient Celts welcomed spring during Beltane by lighting bonfires or the ‘fire of Belt.’ Its fertility rituals have carried through to today, including crowning a May Queen and dancing around a pole or a tree.

    The Full Moon in May is named after flowers

    International Workers’ Day

    International Workers’ Day has deep roots in the 130 years of the labor movement and its efforts to improve workers’ conditions across the globe.

    May 1st or the first Monday in May in the UK is a day for parades and demonstrations, particularly in London. Trade unions usually organize the marches, and people travel far to join the protests. Sometimes the demonstrations can escalate to violence, riots, and looting. In 2000, more than 90 people were arrested, and nine police officers were injured during anti-capitalist protests in London.

    Beltane Bonfires in Scotland

    In Britain, Celtic people celebrated the festival of Beltane on the first of May to mark the halfway point between spring and summer. The fire was believed to cleanse, purify, and increase fertility.

    The Beltane Fire Festival takes place on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland, from April 30 to May 1. Up to 12,000 people meet for a ritualized and theatrical celebration to mark the arrival of summer: Beltane. The festival combines a mix of fire, drumming, and pagan performance.

    Maypole Dancing

    Maypole dancing involves a tradition of decorating a tall pole with colorful ribbons. Children dance around the maypole to make patterns with the colored ribbons.

    It is believed that the maypole has its roots in Roman Britain around 2000 years ago when soldiers celebrated spring by dancing around decorated trees while giving thanks to their goddess Flora.

    The May Queen and Floral Crowns

    Other May Day celebrations derived from Floralia include crowning a May Queen as a human replica for the Roman goddess Flora. Women make and wear floral garlands that the May Queen also wears while she oversees her “court.”

    In Scotland and Ireland, girls used to go out very early to wash their faces in the morning dew. This was supposed to ensure a good corn crop, more cows, and increase fertility.

    Green Man and Morris Dancing

    Jack-in-the-Green is another ancient custom where men dress up in green foliage to represent the Green Man: a symbol of fertility. The Green Man is also associated with the mischievous fairy Puck, a character from A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare.

    Morris dancing is also associated with the beginning of May. Dancers dress in white with bells on various parts of their costumes and carry handkerchiefs and long wooden sticks. The dancing is accompanied by accordion music.