May Day, the Celtic festival of Beltane (Calan Mai in Welsh) and the festival of Walpurgis in the Germanic languages is a spring festival in the Northern Hemisphere. It traditionally signalled the beginning of summer, hence the alternative Welsh name of Calan Haf (first day of summer) falling half a year after Calan Gaeaf (first day of winter – Halloween). Druids were said to be very involved in the ancient rituals including driving cattle between fires to protect them from illnesses. Fires were lit on the hills of south Wales until the middle of the 19th century. The most distinctive custom associated with this pagan festival, however, is the Maypole dance.
In addition to dancing around the Maypole, often made of birch, May Day celebrations included mock fights between a person representing winter and one representing summer, culminating in the victory of summer and the crowning of the King and Queen of May. This was followed by the usual revelries of dancing, feasting, games, drinking and singing from May Day Eve to May Day itself. In Wales, houses would be decorated with white hawthorn symbolising fertility and growth, while today in France and Belgium it is still commonplace to give lilies of the valley as a gift to loved ones. Like many other festivals, May Day became unpopular with Protestants in the 16th Century who equated the dancing around the Maypole with immoral idolatry. In Scotland, the custom was wiped out by Presbyterians. In England and Wales, the traditions were banned under the Commonwealth but came back with renewed popularity once the monarchy was restored. Festivities are still held in Oxford and other English cities including Morris dancing, choirs and madrigal singing while Beltane is celebrated with great fires in Edinburgh.
May Day celebrations these days coincide with International Workers’ Day celebrated world-wide to commemorate the 1856 Haymarket Affair in Chicago when workers demonstrating in support of eight-hour working days were killed by police responding to a bomber. For Catholics, it is also the day of Saint Joseph the worker. It is a public holiday in 80 countries and celebrated in many more, with public demonstrations and rallies.