May Day is usually, but not always, celebrated on the first of May, although in recent years enthusiasm for the holiday has waned considerably. Many Staten Islanders in New York can recall festivities in the past several decades which included springtime sports, and May Poles decorated with bright ribbons streaming from the top of the pole. Young children were traditionally garbed the ribbons and danced around the pole, reveling in the warmth of spring. Older girls crowned a May Queen, and young girls often made baskets which they filled with flowers and hung on the doors of their friends. Many parts of the country still participate in these activities although my borough of Staten Island does not seem to be among them.
The month of May has always been a favorite month, with spring in full bloom and summer close behind. On the original Roman calendar, May was the third month of the year but the revised calendar moved it to the fifth month. The origin of the name, researchers say, most likely comes from Maia, a mother of Mercury. In Roman times and throughout history May has been considered an unlucky month for marriages, stemming back to the days when both the festival of the dead and the festival of the goddess of chastity were celebrated in May. This may explain the popularity of June weddings.
Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, has held May Day celebrations with field sports, dancing around the May Poll and crowning a May Queen with a headdress of fresh flowers. On some occasions college records in sports were broken on that day, possibly due to the enthusiasm for the holiday. The California State Norma School in San José originated May Day festivities in 1902, with games for their kindergarten students. By 1910, the popularity of this holiday had grown to such proportion that 6000 spectators gathered to watch the celebration.
These observances have little to do with the ritualistic and symbolic fetes of olden days. Historians of folk customs have traced the May Day ritual back to the Floralia of the Romans, the festival of Flora, goddess of flowers. This festival was instituted in 238 BC and was celebrated from April 23 until May 3rd.
During the four or five centuries that Rome occupied Britain, the May Day Festival was introduced and flourished. One theory states that the May Day was initially a phallic festival in India and Egypt, marking the renewal of the fertility of nature at springtime. Researchers claim that the Romans considered the May Poll to be a phallic symbol, and their merrymaking included quite a few licentious acts which were the focus of May Day celebrations in England for some time.
The Morris Dance was a pagan dance which consisted of male dancers in fantastic costumes dancing about the May Poll. The name Morris, a word of Moorish origin, is associated with mummers, who acted out the ritual of the pagan god who celebrated his revival after death. Another custom was the May Day procession of a Man-horse, in Cornwall, where the central figure, "Oss Oss”, was a witch doctor disguised as a horse and wearing a mask. Dancers acted as attendants, sang May Day songs and beat on drums.
These activities greatly offended the Puritans, who coerced the Parliament of 1644 to ban the erection of May Polls. The Restoration repealed the prohibition, and in 1661, to celebrate the revival of the old custom, a May Poll, 134 feet high was raised. Sir Isaac Newton purchased the pole in 1717 and used it as a support for his telescope in Essex.
The New England Puritans also voiced objections to May Day festivities, which incited Gov. Endicott of Massachusetts in 1660, to lead a group of men to Merrymont, where the dreaded May Poll had been erected. The men chopped the pole down and named the place Mount Dragon, after the Idol of the Philistines that fell before the Ark.
May Day was said to have magical rites, such as those of Halloween. Samuel Pepys, the English diarist, related how his wife went to the country each May Day to wash her face in dew, a magic ritual ensuring a good complexion. Poetess Ann May Lawler, put the custom to verse: “Ever on the first of May did magic walk — the legends say. Maidens rose at early dawn to find a dew-en-sequinned lawn, and she who humbly bathed her face in dewdrops, in the magic place, she, they say, may never fear the curse of freckles for one year."
When Labor Day was established in this country, the workers of Europe decided to hold a similar celebration, which they observed on May 1st. Due to lively labor politics, the date became better known for riots, bombings and burned cities. Radicals in the U.S. followed the European example and held demonstrations on May 1st. Later many U.S. cities, particularly New York City, demonstrated on May Day with parades of radical, labor, and other organizations, followed by mass meetings.
The beginning of May, whether celebrated with May Polls and flower festivals, or labor demonstrations, or no celebrations at all, introduces a month with few surprises. While March “comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb," and April teases with balmy weather one day and pseudo-winter the next, the month of May brings a stable promise of ever better days to come.