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April 30, 2023

May is a festive month, a time in spring marked with flowers and music. The month includes the joyous observance of May Day and Cinco de Mayo. The Kentucky Derby is run on the first Saturday of the month at Churchill Downs in Louisville. It is the first in horseracing’s Triple Crown. Mother’s Day and Memorial Day come later. Both can be happy occasions or times of somber remembrance.

May Day has a long and varied history. The origin of May Day observance is based on ancient astronomy. It is the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. In ancient times, the event was one of the Celtic cross-quarter days, which marked the midway points between the solstices and equinoxes of the year.

As with many early holidays, May Day was rooted in agriculture. Springtime festivities filled with song and dance celebrated the sown fields starting to sprout. Cattle were driven to pasture, and doors of houses and barns for livestock were decorated with yellow flowers. In the Middle Ages, the Gaelic people celebrated the festival of Beltane, which means the Day of Fire. People created large bonfires and danced through the night to celebrate.

Beltane is one of the eight pagan Sabbats. The celebration of Beltane is focused on fertility. Beltane is a fire festival, and common elements of the Beltane celebrations include bonfires, flowers, wreaths, and various fertility rituals.

May Day has a long history and tradition in England, some of which eventually came to America. People would bring in the May by gathering wildflowers and green branches, weaving floral hoops and hair garlands, and crowning a May king and queen. Children would dance around the maypole, holding onto colorful ribbons. May Day occurs annually and still takes place on the first of May.

Wrapping a maypole with colorful ribbons is a joyous tradition that still exists in some schools and communities. Initially, the maypole was a living tree chosen from the woods with much merrymaking. Ancient Celts danced around the tree, praying for the fertility of their crops and all living things. For younger people, there was the possibility of courtship. If a young woman and man paired by sundown, their romance continued so that the couple could get to know each other and, possibly, marry six weeks later on June’s Midsummer’s Day. This is how the June wedding became a tradition.

In England in the Middle Ages, all villages had maypoles. Towns would compete to see who had the tallest or best maypole. Some villages along the coast erected a ship’s mast as a maypole. People would crown a May Queen who presided over the day’s festivities. Over time, this Old English festival incorporated dance performances, plays, and literature.

The strict Puritans of New England considered the celebrations of May Day to be licentious and pagan, so they forbade its observance. The springtime holiday never became an important part of American culture as it was in many European countries.

Interestingly, from the late 19th century through the 1950s, the Maypole dance and festivities became a rite of spring at some American colleges and universities. Seen as a wholesome tradition, this celebration often included class plays, a cappella concerts, cultural dancing, and music concerts.

Soon, interest waned. The May Queen and her court became a popularity contest or even an opportunity for pranks. When Clare and I were seniors at Furman University, one of her friends was elected May Queen. The celebration was held in a lovely rose garden near the Student Center. Some wag from the chemistry department sprinkled a substance throughout the rose garden, making an otherwise beautiful venue smell like dirty feet. The celebration was short-lived, with meager attendance.  

May Day is celebrated in various ways by people around the world. The following are a few ideas.

The giving of flowers on May Day is a time-honored tradition. In times past, a young man or woman would leave a paper basket containing spring flowers and candy on the doorstep of the object of their affection. This was usually done anonymously.

The tradition was popular with children or sweethearts through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The custom was to knock on the door, yell “May basket,” and run. If the recipient caught the giver, they were entitled to a kiss.

Louisa May Alcott wrote about May Basket Day in the late 1800s. In the 1920s, some schoolchildren hung a May basket on the White House door for First Lady Grace Coolidge. The President’s wife greeted the children and received their kisses. Although it’s not well known today, the May Day basket is still a cherished tradition for some Americans.

Consider celebrating May Day this year. With your children or grandchildren, fill a basket with small gifts such as flower seed packets, baked cookies, candies, and other treats. Give the basket to a loved one.

Among the many superstitions associated with May Day was the belief that washing the face with dew on the first morning of May would beautify the skin and bring good luck. Give it a try! Sprinkle your face with morning dew and see what happens.

 On May Day, people in Britain welcome spring by Bringing in the May. They gather cuttings of fresh flowers for their homes.

The first of May in Hawaii is called Lei Day. Hawaiian people make leis for themselves and others. Leis are garlands made with native Hawaiian flowers and leaves. Leis are given as a symbol of greeting, farewell, affection, celebration, or honor, all in the spirit of aloha.

 My mother would not allow us to go barefoot outside until the first day of May. On that day, Mama would go barefoot with us in our yard on May Day. Whatever your age, walk barefoot in the grass. Encourage the children in your family to do the same!

In parts of Ireland, people would make a May bush. Typically, this was a bush or tree decorated with flowers and ribbons. Consider creating your own May bush or tree.

Beekeepers traditionally move bees on the first of May.

Traditionally, farmers planted turnips on this day. Other folklore has it that they should be planted on the first of May to protect cucumbers from insects. For best results, the grower should be naked when setting the seedlings! I can’t recommend that especially if your neighbor is moving bee hives.

Avid anglers know the best time to catch bream is on the first full moon in May. This year that occurs on the fifth of May.

The term “Mayday!” is not related to the May Day spring festival but instead comes from the French phrase “M’aidez!” which means “Help me!” If you hear “Mayday!” repeated three times, realize it is an urgent distress call.

As colts, calves, and lambs frolic in the pasture, as seedlings emerge from the earth seeking the sun, and as birds call for mates or protect their nest, we humans have much to bring joy to our lives.

After all, May Day is a “day the Lord has made.” We are invited to rejoice and be glad in it.


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Sections of this column will be included in the forthcoming book

For the Living of These Days

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. This week, please consider making a May Day Basket and delivering it to a shut-in friend, family member, or nursing home. Thank you for all you have done. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. Thank you.

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