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The history of May Day

Written by
Image of John Chu
John ChuSenior National Curator, National Trust
Black and white postcard of children wearing white dancing round a maypole
Postcard of children from Dyrham School maypole dancing c. 1912, in the collection at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire | © National Trust

The first day of May is a time to glory in the vitality of spring. Delve into the May traditions that have brought communities together throughout history, and see the objects from our collections that relate to this ancient festival.

The rites of spring

May festivities were first recorded in Ancient Roman times. The Floralia – the Festival of Flora – took place between 28 April and 3 May in honour of the goddess of flowers, fertility and spring. It involved athletic games and theatrical performances.

Later depictions of these events have an elegant air but in the ancient world they were notorious for lewd and chaotic behaviour. Vegetables were pelted and wild hares and deer were released into the crowds as symbols of fecundity.

The Feast of Flora by Johan Georg Platzer

In Roman mythology, Flora is the goddess of flowers and spring. The Austrian artist Johan Georg Platzer’s oil painting, from the collection at Basildon Park in Berkshire, captures the fertile energy of the feast.

See the painting in our collection

The Beltane festival

In the Gaelic world, the opening of the summer pastures for grazing was marked by the Beltane festival. Wild blossoms decorated the doors and windows of houses while great bonfires were built on the last night of April to bestow their protective powers on livestock and their herders.

First recorded in the early medieval period, these rural traditions had come to an end by the middle of the 20th century but have since been revived as an evocation of even older Druidic rites. In Wales, where the first day of May is known as the Calan Mai or Calan Haf, these customs never died out.

The first day of May

This began to emerge as a day of feasting and dancing in towns and villages across the British Isles from the medieval period. A host of exuberant traditions developed to mark the day, now mostly forgotten.

Chimney sweeps wearing gaudy clothes would make mischief on the street and hustle for coins. Milkmaids would dance for pennies while balancing towers of borrowed silverware on their heads.

Oil painting of a man, woman and dog, with people dancing round a maypole in the background
Detail from Fashionable Company, with a Coach and a Maypole, in the collection of the Wimpole Estate, Cambridgeshire | © National Trust

Fashionable Company, with a Coach and a Maypole

A beribboned May Day reveller receives a coin in this anonymous 19th-century painting at Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire. Maypole dancers can be seen in the background.

See the painting in our collection

The origin of May Queens

Like many other festivals, May Day was a topsy-turvy affair when a ‘lord and lady’ would be chosen from among the ordinary people of the community to preside over the day. Eventually the focus shifted completely onto the woman and she became known as the May Queen.

This figure reached the height of her importance in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, by which time she was embodied by a young girl decorously dressed in white and crowned with flowers. Accompanied by a ‘court’ of other girls, the May Queen had become a symbol of purity and the promise of spring.

Around the maypole

The quintessential image of May Day is of dancers weaving the long ribbons of a maypole into intricate patterns. This practice was first recorded in mid-14th-century Wales but eventually spread far and wide.

As time went by, it evolved from an opportunity to flirt into a picturesque pastime for children, often tinged with nostalgia for a simpler and more innocent way of life.

May Day merriment in our collection

Black and white postcard of children dressed up as May Queens
Postcard of children from Dyrham School dressed as May queens, in the collection at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire | © National Trust/Clive James & Rod Stowell

Entertainment by Dyrham School Children

A 1914 postcard of a May Queen standing at the centre, surrounded by her ‘court’, from the collection at Dyrham Park, Gloucestershire.

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May Day’s champions and opponents

May Day has not always been welcomed as a festival of harmless fun. Unrelated to the Christian calendar and all too reminiscent of pagan fertility ritual, attempts were sometimes made to suppress its revels.

The most comprehensive campaign against May Day was waged during Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, maypoles were raised across the land as a gleeful marker of the end of Puritan prohibitions.

Origins of the May Day Bank Holiday

The May Day Bank Holiday was instituted by Michael Foot, then the Labour Employment Secretary, in 1978. A latter-day controversy flared up when it became a bone of contention for those who objected to the socialist connotations of the date.

Back in 1891, the first day of May had been designated International Workers’ Day and set aside for organised industrial agitation: the energies of the spring festival turned to political ends.

A metal coin with text around the edge and the profile image of Cromwell, wearing a laurel wreath
A half-crown coin dating from Cromwell's rule, in the collection at Osterley Park and House, London | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

Restriction under Cromwell

The suppression of May Day traditions during Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth was soon overturned after the restoration of the monarchy. This half-crown dates from Cromwell’s rule and is in the collection at Osterley Park and House, London.

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Revival and reinvention

In more recent times, visitors to the places in our care have celebrated May Day in old ways and new. Local primary school children have performed maypole dances across the country, from Wallington Hall in Northumbria, to Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire, to Stowe Gardens in Buckinghamshire.

Elsewhere, the long weekend has become a chance for families to explore many layers of history. Corfe Castle in Dorset – long the site of May Day dances – now hosts re-enactments of Viking and Saxon conflict.

In 2019 at Stourhead in Wiltshire, the May festival came full circle. Among the classically inspired temples and statues, the Festival of Flora was celebrated once more with a day of activities. Garlands of daisies were constructed to the ancient cry: ‘Io Floralia!’

Overhead view of an octagonal table with the figure of Silenus, a drunken follower of Bacchu, in The Library at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire

Immerse yourself in history

Meet people from the centuries gone by, learn about the unique artworks in our care and understand more about historic traditions.

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