What is May Day? How to celebrate the spring holiday with pagan origins (2024)

Spring is in full bloom and we're halfway to summer.

May 1, known as May Day, has long been celebrated as the midway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Like those days, May Day marks a specific time of year and the changing seasons − the days are growing longer, the weather is warmer and more wildlife and humans alike are out and about.

"It's a beautiful holiday, we're at the height of spring, this is a very happy holiday where one celebrates fertility in nature and in our lives," said Helen A. Berger, a sociology professor at Brandeis University in Boston studying pagan communities in the U.S.

For many, May Day is better known as International Workers' Day, a holiday supporting labor organizing and workers' rights that's been in the mainstream for generations.

Celebrations of spring marking May Day are held in many different parts of the U.S., with maypole dances in some communities. In the 20th Century, it was also popular to make May Day flower baskets and gift them to friends and neighbors.

Other holidays also fall on May 1, including a holiday celebrated in Hawaii.

Here's what you need to know about May Day:

MAPSee where to view flowers in peak bloom across the US

May Day has pagan origins

May Day has origins stretching back to the Middle Ages and the holiday is one of four annual cross-quarter days in the pagan calendar, marking the midpoints between solstices and equinoxes. The most famous cross-quarter day is Halloween, falling on Oct. 31, halfway between the fall equinox and the winter solstice.

"It's an old custom," Berger said.

Halloween, also referred to as Samhain, is considered the most important cross-quarter holiday for practicing pagans and members of the wiccan community, and May Day, also called Beltane, is the next most significant, Berger said. Whereas Halloween is all about death, she said, May Day is a celebration of rebirth.

"It's opposite that of Halloween," Berger said.

Now, most May Day celebrations are free from religious dogma and are meant for anyone, said Alysha Kravetz, of Bronx, New York, who has been practicing witchcraft for 20 years.

"They're really about connecting with the Earth that we live on," Kravetz told USA TODAY.

Going back hundreds of years, communities in what is now the United Kingdom and Ireland celebrated the height of spring with rituals resembling some still observed today, Berger said. People gathered to dance around maypoles, which symbolized fertility, according to Berger. Further back in history, ancient Romans celebrated Floralia, honoring the goddess Flora, according to Kravetz.

"We can kind of trace this continuation of these themes as the Roman Empire took over Europe and took their traditions throughout Europe," Kravetz said.

Today, some school children still dance around maypoles on May 1 and there are community gatherings throughout the country, including in some churches, Kravetz said.

May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii

For nearly 100 years, people in Hawaii have celebrated May Day as Lei Day, with celebratory pageants full of colorful lei flower necklaces taking place at schools, said John Rosa, a professor of Hawaiian history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

"A lot of it is because spring is here, summer's around the corner and we're wrapping up the school year," he said.

Rosa said that in 1927, the poet Don Blanding was visiting Hawaii and proclaimed the now famous phrase, "May Day is Lei Day in Hawaii." The next year, people in the U.S. territory began observing the holiday with lei necklaces and festivities focused on tradition Hawaiian dances, as well as waltzes, Rosa said.

For decades, Lei Day celebrations have mostly taken place at elementary and middle schools, where some students are honored in massive schoolwide pageants, Rosa said.

"People in Hawaii who've grown up here, many of us have memories of learning how to make the particular lei," he said, referring to different flowers used to represent each of Hawaii's eight major islands.

May 1 is International Workers' Day

May 1 also is celebrated around the world as International Workers' Day, or Labor Day, a holiday honoring advances in the fight for labor rights and workplace protections.

International Workers' Day started as a commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Square riots in Chicago, when on May 4, a bomb detonated amid massive strikes organized by workers demanding an eight hour work day. Many protesters and police were killed, according to the Library of Congress.

In 1889, an international group of socialist organizers and trade unions designated May 1 as May Day, and in 1894, U.S. President Grover Cleveland said Americans would celebrate labor on Sept. 1, or Labor Day.

Today, labor organizers − especially in Europe − rally around the May 1 holiday and use it as a time to point to the achievements of the global labor movement.

How can I celebrate May Day?

In the morning on May 1, traditional May Day gatherings will center around maypole dances, where a large pole is inserted into a hole in the ground and people weave ribbons in a pattern around it. Some celebrations also include bonfires.

While the holiday is rooted in paganism, many people who participate in maypole dances don't identify as pagan, according to Berger.

"You don't have to be pagan to be celebrating," she said.

What is May Day? How to celebrate the spring holiday with pagan origins (3)

Some maypole dance celebrations include a Morris dance, a type of traditional English folk dance, where participants wear small bells below their knees and flower crowns.

Dancing in general is a wonderful way to mark May Day, Kravetz said.

"The actual activity is less important than the intention of knowing that you're doing it to shake off those winter blues and shake off that stagnant energy," she said.

During the 1900s, in the U.S. – especially in New England – it was common for people to make May Day flower baskets − with some calling the holiday May Basket Day. Observing was simple: Hang a small basket of flowers and other goodies on someone's front door knob as a surprise.

May Day also can just be about appreciating nature's beauty and engaging in some self-reflection, Berger said. The simplest way to observe the holiday is to manifest positive energy for the rest of the year's warm seasons, she said.

"Just go out into the world, try to find a park, a path to walk along, and just take in spring, breathe in this season," Berger said.

What is May Day? How to celebrate the spring holiday with pagan origins (2024)
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