It’s May Day, and for all those living outside of North America it is also International Workers or Labour Day. In Greece workers hold massive rallies in protest to labour laws, while people all over the country celebrate the Festival of Flowers, a celebration with ancient roots. It is also the start of the warmer six months of the year in the northern hemisphere, after often bitterly cold winters, and this was cause for celebration with bonfires and dancing.
This year, of course, May Day comes in the midst of an economic crisis and hard times, so governments across the European continent are bracing for large protest marches and potential violence. Athens’ annual May Day March, which by tradition starts outside parliament in the city’s main square, predictably will once again end in clashes between police and hard-core protesters.
In Greece, strikes and protests are a national pastime with their own rituals and culture. Small protests over specific issues occur on an almost daily basis, but the biggest ones are amorphous gatherings of people with many different causes and grievances: anti-American, anti-globalization, anti-capitalist, anti-war, pro-worker, pro-immigrant, pro-animal rights. Sometimes different protests, organized by different groups in roughly the same geographic area, will meld together and then separate again, like globs of oil floating in water.
The history of traditional May Day celebrations in Europe dates back to before the time of Christ, when it was considered a pagan holiday. May is derived from the Greek goddess Maia.
In Greece, aside from the protests it is also a day for celebrating flowers, and what better way to celebrate then making flower wreaths. According to tradition, women and young girls go from house to house and literally steal flowers, or flower pots from their neighbours and use those flowers to make wreaths, which they then hang on their front porches for prosperity and luck. The flowers stand for the birth of life and nature as well as a blessing for a bountiful season.
Other people, usually enjoy small road trips to the countryside to have a break with a picnic. In some places in Greece, young ladies in traditional costumes collect flowers and exchange nature’s goods and then go from house to house offering sweets to their neighbours.
Also it is a day to make garlands. Making garlands has been a traditional custom in Europe dating back to ancient history, and continues to be an important part of the May Day customs even today. In earlier times, women would gather flowers before daylight and start making the garlands. The significance of the garlands is that it is representative of the ushering in of summer.
Another custom for May Day was the gathering and erecting of the maypole. Villagers would go into the woods, gather just the right section of tree trunk, decorate it with flowers and garlands, and then take back to the village set it up somewhere in the center of town and then people would dance and sang around the maypole to celebrate May Day. At the end of the day, people would light up a bonfire and then accept a challenge to leap over it for luck. But before everyone does so, they wet their clothes for safety and jump over the fire in order to ward off the winter and bring in the warmth of the summer.
International Customs on May Day
- ENGLAND – In England, May Day traditions include university students in pagan rituals, playing madrigal music, and dancing at sunrise in celebrations at Durham and Oxford. A Jack in the Green carnival has been revived in towns such as Whitstable, Rochester, Hastings, Bristol, and Oxford, where the traditional figure dressed as a tree leads a parade of Morris dancers and others. Hordes of motorbike riders set off from London each year in the Maydayrun and travel the 55 miles to Hastings to join its Jack in the Green festivities. There is maypole dancing and plenty of singing and dancing in the streets. Other Cornish towns hold a Flower Boat Ritual, where a model boat is taken past decorated houses to the beach and set afloat. Maypole dancing and Morris dancing are popular too.
- GERMANY – Germany has a May Day slogan of ‘Tanz in den Mai’ or ‘Dance into May’. On the eve of May Day, there are traditional pagan ceremonies such as bonfires and maypole decorating. In western areas, males send their girlfriends a tree or maypole adorned with streamers. May Day itself is popular for picnics and other outings.
- FRANCE – In France, men give women a lily sprig, a ritual that started when Charles IX did this on 1 May 1561. A woman traditionally kisses the man who gave her the branch. Vendors set up stalls and sell these sprays and don’t have to pay tax on the profits.
- FINLAND – Finland starts May Day festivities with its Walpurgis Night on the eve of the holiday. The event is one of the country’s three largest celebrations, the others being New Year’s Eve and the midsummer Juhannas, and there are bonfires and plenty of eating, drinking, and partying, with festivities carrying over to the next day. Similar nights are held in Sweden, Germany, Estonia, and Czech Republic. Large picnics are organized in Finnish
- SPAIN AND PORTUGAL – Spain and Portugal have celebrated May Day as a labour day since the end of their dictatorship eras several decades ago. In Italy, traditional May Day celebrations include ‘Concerto del Primo Maggio’, or ‘1 May’s Concert’, attracting a crowd of over 300,000.
- HUNGARY – In Hungary, people dance round ‘May trees’. In the Jászság (between the rivers Danube and Tisza), May trees are usually decorated with colourful paper ribbons. Some suitors also attach gifts for their sweethearts, such as a bottle of wine. On Palóc territories (Northern Hungary), the man would only erect the trees, leaving it to be decorated by the girl and her mother.
- NORTHERN EUROPE – Scandinavian countries, and Russia all hold annual parades, meetings, and demonstrations to celebrate labour achievements on May Day
- SCOTLAND – In St. Andrews Scotland, some of the students gather on the beach late on April 30th and run into the North Sea at sunrise on May Day. This is accompanied by torch light processions and much enthusiastic celebration
- IRELAND – In Ireland, May Day has been celebrated in Ireland since pagan times as the Feast of Bealtaine and in latter times as Mary’s day. Bonfires are lit to mark the coming of summer and to banish the long nights of winter. (Irish Mayday Bank Holiday is now officially observed on the first Monday in May). In modern times May Day is associated with anti-government rallies which are held every year on this date. The Festival of the Fires in Killare, Co.Westmeath marks the celebration of May Day.
- SWEDEN – In Sweden Mayday is denoted “First of May” (“Första maj” in Swedish) and has been a public holiday in Sweden since 1939. The main events on Mayday are political demonstrations carried out by the working class organisations and political parties historically associated with the working class movement.
- PACIFIC – In the Pacific and specifically in Hawaii May Day is known as Lei Day and is normally set aside to celebrate island culture in general and Native Hawaiian culture in particular. While it was invented by a poet and a local newspaper columnist in the 1920s, it has since been adopted by state and local government as well as by the residents, and it has taken on a sense of a general spring celebration there.
- AMERICAS – In the Americas, May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American Continent. In some parts of the United States May baskets are made. These are small and usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone’s doorstep. The basket giver would ring the bell and run away. The person receiving the basket would try to catch the fleeing giver. If they caught the person, a kiss was to be exchanged.
- The month of May was considered an unlucky month particularly for getting married. In Greece they say only donkeys get married in May… nonetheless many people hold their weddings this month.
- Being born in May was thought to produce a sickly child.
- Never buy a broom in May or wash blankets.
- Cats born this month will not be good rodent catchers and even worse, will bring snakes into the home.
- Unlucky days are 3rd, 6th, 7th, 13th, 15th and 20th
SAYINGS and QUOTES
- “A wet May makes a big load of hay. A cold May is kindly and fills the barn finely. ”
- “A swarm of bees in May… Is worth a load of hay.”
- “Mist in May, Heat in June… Makes harvest come right soon”
- “If you wash a blanket in May; you will wash one of the family away.”
- “Those who bathe in May… Will soon be laid in clay”