Pagan Origins of Mayday

I’ve posted this as background information for the Maypole Dancing pages on this site.

This text was taken from a site created and maintained by Adapted from the BBC TV Series “About Time” by John Berger and others.

Mayday was a rite of passage custom that marked an important seasonal transition in the year. Putting a maypole up involved taking a growing tree from the wood, and bringing it to the village to mark the oncoming season of the summer. Mayday used to be a period of great sexual license. People would go off into the woods to collect their trees and green boughs, but once there, would enter into all sorts of temporary sexual liaisons which society did not normally accept.

Why isn’t it like that now? It was tamed and redirected. In the seventeenth century, Mayday came under severe attack by the puritans who banned it by an act of Parliament in 1644. In Philip Stubbe’s “Anatomy of Abuses”, which was a puritan tract against all kinds of merrymaking, there is a section called ‘Against May’, where he actually tries to measure the degree of sexual licence. “Every parish town and village assemble themselve’s together. Men and women and children, old and young and go off, some to the woods and groves, some to the hills and mountains, where they spend the night in pastimes. In the morning they return bringing with them birch-boughs and trees to deck their assemblies withal. I’ve heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity, credibility and reputation. That forty, three score, or a hundred youths, going to the woods over night. They have scarcely the third part of them, returned home again undefiled.”

The Puritans also objected to May Day and other festivals, because of the way social hierarchy was set aside, so that all were commonly involved, from the highest to the lowest. The Puritans found this offensive much preferring strict gradations in society. May day did return with the restoration of Charles the second in 1660, but it didn’t have the same robust force. It had the same old image, but the elements of sexual licence and social reversal went underground. Then in the nineteenth century, the Victorians overlaid a much more moral tone on the festival, emphasising its innocence. Instead of being a celebration of fertility, it turned into a kind of commemoration of Merry England. The girls taking part now wore white and held posies.

What has this cleaning up done to the image of May Day today? For the past sixty years folklorists have been rediscovering the Pagan fertility tradition, with its myths, rites and sexual license. Some say this has overshadowed the way in which May and other customs have been rooted in an economic way of life. May garlands, for example embodied the coming of summer, but they also embodied the knocking on doors around the parish and asking for money. At other times of the year begging would have been an offense. But if it was done at May time with a garland, or collecting money for the Guy, or wassailing at Christmas, it would have a powerful legitimation. Also the taking of the tree for the may pole highlighted the rights of the people to take wood freely for fuel. This confirms the extensive medieval rights to wood usage, including the taking of wood, both growing timber for building and repairs and dead wood for fuel

Why did the Labour Movement choose May Day as International Labour Day? It’s more that May Day chose the Labour Movement. Unlike Easter, Whitsun or Christmas, May Day is the one festival of the year for which there is no significant church service. Because of this it has always been a strong secular festival, particularly among working people who in previous centuries would take the day off to celebrate it as a holiday, often clandestinely without the support of their employer. It was a popular custom, in the proper sense of the word – a people’s day – so it was naturally identified with the Labour and socialist movements and by the twentieth century it was firmly rooted as part of the socialist calendar. It’s only recently that the state has recognised May Day as a bank holiday for the first time since it had royal support back in the Elizabethan court, and there’s been a big battle over this May Day which was seized upon by the Right as something foreign and left-wing. But this entirely misses the continuity of its roots in our cultural tradition.

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