The first May Day celebrations date back before the beginning of Christianity, to the time when Roman gods and goddesses were worshiped. The celebration was always held on the first day of May, in honor of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. It was a joyous event as it marked the end of a long, cold winter and the beginning of summer, with its warm sunshine and colorful flowers.
Modern people no longer celebrate Roman gods and goddesses but the tradition of a May Day celebration continues in many parts of the world. Many of these events celebrate the end of winter and the arrival of summer but, in some cultures, the date is valued for different reasons.
One of the most well-known May Day traditions is to dance around the Maypole. The Maypole is a tall, straight timber of wood usually erected in the center of the village or town where the festivities will take place. These festival grounds are called the May Fair and many communities, especially those in Europe where May Day festivities are closely linked to the community’s cultural heritage, will keep the Maypole erected all year long.
The Maypole is often decorated with garlands of flowers and colorful banners. People dance around the pole, sometimes holding on to the flower garlands or banners, as the entire community comes out to enjoy fun, food, and music after so many dark, dreary months indoors.
Another popular May Day tradition is the giving of May baskets, which are small baskets filled with flowers, candy, and other treats. A secret admirer places the May basket on the doorstep of someone he or she is fond of, rings the doorbell, and then runs away, hopefully before the receiver can get to the door. If the person receiving the May basket catches its giver, he or she is rewarded with a kiss.
Many May Day celebrations include a crowning of the Queen of the May, usually a young girl who wears white clothing and a crown of flowers to the May Fair. Her duties include leading the May Day parade and presiding over the day’s festivities.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, the original May Day tradition, celebrating the arrival of summer and its flowers, was replaced with a celebration of the Virgin Mary. In paintings depicting Mary at this time, she usually wears a crown of flowers on her head to signify the season.