May Day: A Festival of Summer
By Ama H. Vanniarachchy
The world celebrates May Day on 1 May every year. It is celebrated as International Labour Day and is a holiday all over the world. However, May Day was celebrated in ancient times not as Labour Day but as an ancient summer festival in many parts of Europe. Although May Day is associated with communism today, historians and folklorists say that it is a later addition to May Day celebrations and it was actually an age-old folk celebration in preChristian Europe. Interestingly, when tracing back to the origins and studying the folk culture of May Day celebrations, the Indo-European origin of this festival is evident which makes May Day a very ancient festival that is continued till today. This is a voyage to pagan Europe, to explore the origins of May Day.
Banned, replaced and yet, still existing
May Day celebrations across the world were banned by the Puritans during the 16th century. 16th century records of the Puritans say that all the young girls of the village would go to the woods on the night of 30 April and spend the night in the woods. The Puritans surmised something sexual was going on more than just picking flowers in the wood. Consequently, they banned May Day. According to historians and folklorists, the pagan or the preChristian culture in ancient Europe has its links to ancient Indo-European and then Proto-Indo-European cultures. However, as Christianity spread across Europe, many of the original folk beliefs were forcefully banned by political and religious authorities. The folk culture of Europe was subjected to Christianising. May Day was also subjected to banning as we mentioned earlier; however, it was never forgotten by people. In later times during May Day celebrations, priests from local cathedrals would come and say prayers, making them Christianised. May Day celebrations were also replaced by Easter celebrations. Till to date, there is much debate and disagreement between various sects of the church about the actual date of Easter celebrations.
A festival to welcome summer
May Day is celebrated to welcome summer. As the month of April ends and May begins, people celebrate it as the dawn of summer. Hence, the celebrations begin on the night of the last day of April and at the dawn of 1 May. Usually, May Day celebrations across Europe are associated with large bonfires, trees and branches, maypoles, maidens, alcohol, folk songs, and folk dances. Also, people would collect dew during the dawn. May Day’s close association with dawn, dew, and maidens is why folklorists believe that it is linked to the goddess Eostre. She is a goddess of dawn. Maidens dressed in white and adorned with wild flowers dancing around a maypole suggest an ancient fertility cult. Also, these maidens being dressed in white is a representation of the goddess of dawn.
Indo-European origins of May Day
One goddess and many versions Eostre is a goddess of dawn. The terms Eostre and Ostar derive from the Proto-Germanic goddess Austro. In some parts of Europe, May Day dawn celebrations are associated with the goddess Bridget. What is interesting about the folk culture around Bridget is that people in Ireland make corn-leaf swastikas for her. The swastika is a symbol of the sun and this once again suggests the Indo-European connection of this festival. According to historians the name Bridget is derived from the ProtoCeltic name Briganti (which means the high one) and this term cognates with the Sanskrit name Brhatī which is another name to Ushas, the Hindu goddess of dawn. Austro and Ushas derive from the Proto-Indo-European goddess named Hausos (héwsōs or haéusōs), goddess of dawn. Another very interesting yet novel and still debatable argument is the link between Eostre, Easter and Ishtar. Now you must be wondering who Ishtar is.
Ishtar is a powerful Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, female sexuality, and marriage. Sun worshipping cult In some May Day celebrations, people dance as the sun rises on 1 May. This ritual and making corn leaf swastikas suggest worshipping or paying gratitude to the sun as the giver of life and hope. The IndoEuropeans are known to worship the Sun God. Isn't it amazing to see how connected people were originally, until later, organised religions rose to power and divided people in every possible way? Banning of local festivals and beliefs whilst replacing them with something else and religious wars that occurred all over the globe wiping off ancient cultures, causing the death of many.
However, these folk cultures of all over the world suggest how culturally interconnected people were and how many of these ancient cultures can be traced back to a single ancient origin. An ancient fertility cult May Day celebrations across Europe suggest that it was associated with fertility and women’s sexuality. During May Day celebrations the maidens of the village hoped to find a suitable partner for themselves, once again suggesting remnants of a fertility cult. This is one reason that they believe it is unlikely for the man to have power in marriage if he marries on May Day as the wife’s sexual powers are high and she will have control over his life in every possible way.
These rituals and beliefs are also remnants of the age-old goddess worship cult which, as some scholars may suggest, is a remnant of a lost matriarchic civilisation. Overshadowed by Easter Another interesting argument by some scholars is that Easter celebrations replaced May Day. April was the month dedicated to Eostre. May Day’s connection to Eostre and fertility, and the fact that the Western Church and Orthodox Church disagree on when to place Easter celebrations on the calendar are reasons to argue so. Easter eggs are a vital part of Easter celebrations. Eggs symbolise fertility, new life and the dawn of hope.
May Day celebrations across Europe
Now keeping all these in mind, let us travel across Europe and witness some of the interesting May Day celebrations. England, Ireland and Scotland England, Ireland and Scotland celebrate May Day following pagan rituals. It is still a major part of England's folk culture. Villages and towns are decorated with trees and branches. Traditions followed on this day are the maypole and Morris dance. Young girls dance around the maypole holding ribbons that are attached to the pole. The Morris dance is performed by men, wearing white shirts, colourful scarves, and bells.
They sing folk songs while doing so. In some parts of England – especially in rural areas – there is a folk dance around a ‘Hobby Horse’ which they pronounce as obby oss. This is a man dressed like a horse who dances around the village. People sing and dance around the obby oss. Being wacked by the oss is considered as a blessing by women as they believe they will be pregnant soon after being wacked by him.
Folklorists say that this ‘horse ritual’ is reminiscent of ancient IndoEuropean tribes who were fierce horse riders and breeders. Also, it should be noted that the horse is the abode or vehicle of Ushas the Hindu goddess and of the Sun god, Surya. This merry festival is a favourite time of the locals as they renew family bonds and friendships. Beer is a must during May Day celebrations. Selecting a May Queen is another ritual.
A young girl is selected as the May Queen and paraded around the village. Maidens of the village dress in white and decorate themselves with wild flowers, garlands, and wreaths. Washing themselves with dew happens on 1 May. In ancient times it is recorded that people would collect the dew into bottles and keep using them as a tonic with healing powers throughout the year. In Ireland the May festival is called the Bealtaine. A huge bonfire is lit and people sing and dance around it, constantly drinking.
In Germany the May Day is celebrated with fire and is associated with witches. A large bonfire is lit at the premises of an ancient pagan temple while the festival has a rather spiritual and mystic aspect.
The festival is called Valborg in Sweden. Although this May festival follows the same traditions and rituals, it is celebrated during midsummer. The pole which people dance around is adorned with flowers and a sun wheel. This sun wheel is a reminder of its age-old sun worshipping rituals. Another ritual is that young girls go into the woods and pick up seven types of wildflowers. These flowers are kept under their pillows in the hope of dreaming about the man that they will marry.
The goddess of dawn celebrated here is Ausrine. According to local folklore she is associated with the morning star and makes way for the arrival of the Sun.
Here the festival is called the Armindeni or the day of the drunkard. On the eve of the day before May Day people bring branches of evergreens such as oaks, poplars, and fir trees and fix them around the village or city.
The maypole ritual can be seen in Hungary and is very much similar to the celebrations in Romania. The May Day celebrations usually last for a couple of days. In some parts of Europe shops and local offices are closed as they all are busy preparing for this festival of summer. Even now, in many parts of Europe, May Day is celebrated preserving the traditional customs as they still highly value their folklore.