The History Behind May Day and How it Affects British Culture Today
May Day (May 1st, or the 1st Monday of May) is known by many in the UK as part of a long weekend spent socialising in beer gardens or walking around the local countryside in the emerging summer sun. What isn’t always understood is the medieval origins surrounding this day, and the confusion between May Day and the Spring bank holiday whose roots came from more political circumstances.
May Day was originally observed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to celebrate the return of spring. Their lavish festivals (known as Floralia by the Romans) were dedicated to the goddess Flora, and festivities would include the gathering of wildflowers to weave intricate floral garlands, which were used to crown the May king and queen. The ritual of decorating a ‘May’ tree or pole for people to dance around was intended to ensure the fertility of crops and livestock, as well as the fertility and longevity of humans.
There is also evidence to suggest that May Day has roots in the celtic festival known as Beltane, which was invented to celebrate the beginning of the summer. Part of their tradition involved taking cattle out to the pastures and performing rituals like bonfires and dances to protect the cattle and ensure their health and growth.
Interestingly, as the Puritans of New England considered such festivities to be immoral and pagan, they did not allow their people to observe the practice, which is why the holiday never became part of American culture.
May Day is commonly associated (and oftentimes confused) with the Spring bank holiday at the end of the month, which was formalised as a national holiday by the Labour government in 1978. The purpose of this was to coincide with International Workers’ Day, which falls on the same date. This particular holiday originated from the stonemasons in Australia going on strike in 1856 demanding an eight-hour work day, but was most notably recognised after the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886, where a peaceful protest about worker’s rights was met with violence and bloodshed. The concept of the eight-hour work day has since been adopted in Europe in particular.
In the 21st Century, the traditional May Day celebrations started to decline, as more countries recognised International Workers’ Day as the key holiday for May. However, there are countries in Europe that still honour the age-old tradition. In Italy, the festival of Calendimaggio in Assisi has people taking part in horse-riding competitions, with singing and dancing being a big part of the festivities. In England, the The Clun Green Man Festival in Shropshire has a theatrical display telling the story of the ‘Green Man’ who represents death and rebirth defeating the ‘Ice Queen’ to ensure that summer comes to the valley.
One key theme that unites Floralia, Beltane, and the homage to fertility and summer that we see in modern society is nature. From rebirth to flower dances, nature is regarded as the most important part of summer, which many of our resident artists can attest. Becky Mair’s ‘Borden’ is an original acrylic piece that highlights the beauty and fragility of our British livestock, whilst Nicky Litchfield’s ‘Morning Stroll’ and 'Valentine' gives us a more summery feel with her use of pastels on paper, and Debbie Boon's 'A Right Pair' and Anthony Dobson's 'Bullish' limited edition prints both create a dramatic effect.Visit our online gallery for a wide assortment of original paintings and drawings of livestock and wildlife that captures the essence of May Day and its celebration of life.