The history of May Day, a spring celebration

John Chu, Assistant Curator of Pictures & Sculpture John Chu Assistant Curator of Pictures & Sculpture

The first day of May is a time to glory in the vitality of spring. Winter has finally been banished, and the long, warm days of summer are on their way.

Assistant Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, John Chu, delves into the May traditions that have brought communities together throughout history and considers 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.

In Roman mythology, Flora is the goddess of flowers and spring. The Austrian artist Johan Georg Platzer captures the fertile energy of the Feast of Flora in this painting
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 captures the fertile energy of the Feast of Flora in this painting

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.

Hawthorn trees in flower on Slindon Estate, West Sussex

The May tree

The common name of the Hawthorn is the May tree, named for the month in which it flowers. Flowering Hawthorn trees are seen here on Slindon Estate, West Sussex.

Volunteers stoking a bonfire

May Eve bonfires

Beltane is the Gaelic May Day festival. Bonfires are built on the last night of April (May Eve) to bestow protective powers on livestock and plants. Here, volunteers at Bourne Mill, Essex in Devon prepare a spring bonfire.

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.

Maypoles and May Queens

The first day of May began to emerge as a day of feasting and dancing in towns and villages across the British Isles from medieval period. A host of rambunctious 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.

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
Painting of 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

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. 

A 1914 photograph of a May Queen standing at centre, surrounded by her 'court', from the collection at Dyrham, Gloucestershire
Postcard of Dyrham school children in May Queen outfits
A 1914 photograph of a May Queen standing at centre, surrounded by her 'court', from the collection at Dyrham, Gloucestershire
Three female figures with a garland of flowers, ink on paper, Charles Paget Wade, Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire
ink sketch of three female figures
Three female figures with a garland of flowers, ink on paper, Charles Paget Wade, Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire

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. 

Photograph of school children maypole dancing, 1912, Dyrham School, Gloucestershire
Photograph of Village school children maypole dancing
Photograph of school children maypole dancing, 1912, Dyrham School, Gloucestershire
The cover of 'The Maypole' by Gertrude Angela Mary Konstam published in 1882, illustrated by Ella and Nelia Casella. From the collection at Lanhydrock, Cornwall
Book with illustration of Maypole
The cover of 'The Maypole' by Gertrude Angela Mary Konstam published in 1882, illustrated by Ella and Nelia Casella. From the collection at Lanhydrock, Cornwall

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.

Halfcrown, from the rule of Cromwell, 1658

Restriction under Cromwell

A campaign against May Day was waged during Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth. This half-crown dates from Cromwell's rule and is in the collection at Osterley Park, London.

Michael Mackintosh Foot, FRSL, MP (1913-2010), Fox Talbot Museum, Wiltshire

The Bank Holiday

The May Day Bank Holiday was instituted by Michael Foot, the Labour Employment Secretary in 1978.

A latter-day controversy flared up around the institution of the May Day Bank Holiday. Instituted by Michael Foot, the Labour Employment Secretary in 1978, 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.

Revival and reinvention

In more recent times, visitors to our places 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 Landscape Gardens in Buckinghamshire.
 
Elsewhere, the long weekend has become a chance for families to explore many layers of history. Corfe Castle in Dorset has long been the site of May Day frolics. In recent times, however, re-enactments of the conflict between Vikings and Saxons that took place along the nearby coast have become a regular bank holiday fixture.

May Day procession in the moat of Corfe Castle, Dorset. This anonymous drawing is in the collection at Kingston Lacy, Dorset
Drawing of May Day procession in the moat of Corfe Castle, Dorset
May Day procession in the moat of Corfe Castle, Dorset. This anonymous drawing is in the collection at Kingston Lacy, Dorset

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!’

A child making a daisy chain in spring
Making a daisy chain
A child making a daisy chain in spring