The roots of May Day can be traced back at least 2,000 years. The celebration as we know it in the UK today is the result of melding Pagan, Roman and Medieval traditions.
The Celts and British Pagan Heritage
New life and fertility with the coming of summer were marked by the ancient Celts with May Poles and dancing. The May Pole is a tall pole with coloured ribbons tied to the top. Originally the pole would have been a tree cut when it reached the correct height and with the branches cut off, a powerful symbol since the Celts worshipped trees. Young men and women would each hold a ribbon and would dance weaving in and out of each other to plait the ribbons into a complex patterns. The pole signified fertility and dancing around it was supposed to bring this benefit to the dancers.
The Celts divided their year by 4 major festivals. The first day of summer was called Beltane, 'the fire of Bel'. Bel was the sun god worshipped by Celts across Continental Europe, Britain and Ireland. Beltane was celebrated with bonfires to welcome the new season. Fire was believed to cleanse, purify and increase fertility. The Celts jumped over the fire to pledge themselves to each other. Animals were driven through the smoke to protect them from diseases. At Beltane, couples went A-Maying - spending the night in the woods, fields and brought back May and hawthorn blossoms as a sign of fertility and the new season.
In England this became May Day but in Scotland the festival is still known as Beltane. In Edinburgh the spectacle now includes fire displays, drumming, processions with pipe bands and plenty of body paint.
During the 300 year long Roman occupation of Britain the Floralia was celebrated. Flora was the goddess of flowers and spring and the festival in her honour was held for 6 days at the end of April. The celebration was for everyone, not just the nobility, and was all about pleasure, fertility and flowers. The festival included games and dancing so it is easy to see where the flowers, foliage and fun elements of modern British May Day stem from.
Morris dancers are traditional folk dancers. This form of dance dates back to Medieval times. The earliest written record of a Morris dancing performance in England is from 1448 but the origins of Morris are lost in the mists of time. Morris dancing used to be confined to male performers but nowadays both men and women take part. Traditionally dressed in white with strips of bells on their legs, colourful neckerchiefs and belts across their chests, Morris dancers perform jigs, kicks, jumps and set patterns. Morris dancers have become closely associated with May Day. Performing with wooden poles and handkerchiefs, they are a wonderful sight, especially on a village green on a sunny day.
Georgian Era and After May Day Customs
Jack-in-the-Green is a May Day character first recorded in 1770. The man playing Jack is dressed in a conical wicker or wooden framework covered in foliage. The look is completed with green face paint. The character is likely to have evolved from an earlier tradition of milkmaids carrying milk pails decorated with flowers. The use of foliage and flowers firmly associates this tradition with the spring/summer season and the fertility and new life it brings. The tradition went out of favour in the 20th century but has been recently revived and the Jack-in-the-Green features in several May Day celebrations in England.
Hobby horses (or 'Obby 'Osses) feature in festivals in Padstow and Minehead. Music accompanies the wild dancing of the 'osses which are men dressed in 6ft wide wooden hoops draped in black sailcloth and wearing fearsome masks. The origins of the tradition are not known but theories abound. The 'obby 'oss is a rainmaker, a fertility symbol or a deterrent to a landing by the French, or a welcome to summer, dependent on which legend you believe.
Another local festivity in early May is the Helston Floral Festival. This centuries old tradition is most likely to stem from the anniversary of the apparition of St Michael (patron saint of the parish church in Helston) on May 8th. Heralded by an early morning ringing of the church bells, Floral Day features the Furry Dance which weaves in and out of the streets and local houses. The male dancers dress in top hats and tails and the females in beautiful, colourful dresses. Flora Day also features the Hal-an-Tow, a mummers play where St George and St Michael slay the Dragon and the Devil. The players are cheered on by a crowd dressed in Lincoln green and Elizabethan robes.
As the dawn breaks in Dorset on May 1st, Morris Men dance on the site of the old maypole above the Cerne Abbot Giant. Local folklore has long held that the huge chalk figure carved into the hillside is an aid to fertility. The dancing moves to the village square, then a well-deserved breakfast.
Queen of the May is a girl who personifies springtime and summer on May Day. Traditionally she wears white to symbolise purity and a garland or crown. In some older village traditions, there was a Lord and Lady or King and Queen of the May. This custom persists in some areas of England but the Queen of the May is everywhere seen.
Places to Celebrate in Early May
To book your holiday at any UK celebrations of May Day, get in touch with our staycation experts.
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Today is a day of visits to relatives and friends so we make sure we have some time to relax before the running around begins. Instead of heading to the centre, round Aristotelous Square (named after Aristotle who came from Halkidiki just down the road from here), we decide to go for coffee at the port. On the way we passed jewels of turn of the century architecture amongst the less delightful blocks of flats.
Once Thessaloniki was full of such beautiful buildings but a huge fire in 1917 destroyed about two thirds of the centre of the city.
Along the seafront there are a few 'Belle Epoque' buildings and deco masterpieces can also be found. Stroll around the centre of the city and you will stumble across wonderful old buildings wedged between the ubiquitous flats. What you will also find are remains of the Byzantine city walls as well as Roman ruins, such as the Arch of Galereus and the Emperor Galereus' Palace. It is an ever fascinating place to walk around for those interested in history but here there is something for everyone, great shopping, sightseeing, cultural events and much, much more.
The port has been redeveloped as a cultural hub with several museums near the wonderful Passenger Terminal building. Although still functioning as a commercial port, Thessaloniki no longer has the same amount of maritime traffic as it once did. There are still ferries operating but nothing like from Piraeus and mainly in the summer to the Sporades islands for example. Cruise ships put in at Thessaloniki but again, not in large numbers. So Thessaloniki made a smart move by regenerating the area and capitalising on the fabulous views you get of the city from the port area.
To the left of the magnificent Passenger Terminal building and facing the sea is the Kitchen Bar, our destination for coffee and later a spot of lunch. We sat outside watching the pleasure boats on their harbour tours and the huge container ships at anchor. The weather was sunny with a few clouds to make it interesting. To our left the whole of Thessaloniki and close by Aristotelous Square. My frappe (iced coffee) tasted delicious looking at that great view. Basking in the sun in great surroundings is what holidays are all about.
We enjoyed a spot of lunch at Kitchen Bar, American style diner with a Greek twist. Food is plentiful and tasty. Knowing how large the portions are we only ordered one ma in course and a salad and were totally full. The pork souvlaki was succulent and the salad unusual, including baby figs, Cretan hard cheese and beetroot leaves, as well as spinach and cranberries. Bizarre combination I hear you cry, but it worked.
Tearing ourselves away from the view we whizzed back to the apartment for a quick change. Next stop Panorama, upmarket hilltop suburb of Thessaloniki. Here we visited relatives and were pressed to eat some 'spanakopita' and 'tiropita' (spinach and cheese pies respectively) made by the mother in law in Crete. Despite being pretty full from lunch the pies were so appetising that of course they had to be tried. To go with our coffee we also had to try some 'glyko', home made fruit in syrup, also known as 'spoon sweet'. In this case we were treated to strawberry glyko, a bit sweet for me but yummy nevertheless.
Last stop in our packed programme was with another friend who we had arranged to meet near Parorama in another picturesque village on the heights. Our destination was Zografou, a cute cafe bar which offers a great range of herbal tea, particularly Krocus Kozanis, made with saffron. Of course they also serve wines, beers and snacks. I stuck with a lager and this time chose an Alfa, which is not at all bitter and very easy drinking.
We had a pleasant time catching up with news of friends, work, etc, and said our goodbyes fairly early as our friend had to get up early next morning. Frankly we were pretty relieved as we were whacked! Mind you before we left, in true Greek tradition, our friend gave us a huge box of cakes as a gift. The patisserie box was full of the local speciality of 'Panorama trigono', filo pastry triangles with syrup and custard. My diet is suffering but it is all too good not to eat!
The way home was a bit exciting as we went the wrong way up the road and ended up winding down the big hill on some windy single track roads - terrifying in the dark. But the view of the city lights as we returned to civilisation was amazing. And so to bed...