by Delia

The month of May. For many it signals the end of the school year and the start of summer, genealogy travel and other, less important vacations. But the first day of May has a long tradition of festivals and feasts, starting in the pre-Christian era with the Germanic festival Walpurgis and the Celtic Beltane. Both celebrate spring and planting with bonfires to banish the long winter nights and dancing around a Maypole (Maibaum in Germany), and the crowning of a May Queen in Britain. As these lands became Christianized, the Church tried to associate May 1 with the Virgin Mary, but for many it remained a secular holiday to celebrate the fertility of the land, the flocks and the people. And in early England, May 1 was the first day of summer, with June 21, the Solstice, celebrated as Midsummer, when planting was finished.

Although traditions were similar, many regions added specific regional touches, such as Bulgaria’s Irminden, which is associated with protection from lizards and snakes, and Arminden in Romania, celebrated to insure the protection of crops, farm animals and people.

Settlers in the United States and Canada handed down their own traditions to their descendants, although in Canada it may be celebrated later in the month, as the weather warms. May baskets, filled with flowers and candy and left for the recipient to find, became popular in some areas of the United States.

May 1 was also chosen as International Workers’ Day to commemorate the Haymarket Massacre of 1886 in Chicago, and is celebrated as Labor Day in many countries. It is also associated with the Russian Revolution of 1917.

So think about your ancestors today. They may have crowned a Queen of May, either Catholic or agricultural. Maybe they danced around the Maypole to celebrate fertility or just have a good time. They could have demonstrated for an 8-hour work day or rejoiced the coming of spring. Or a bonfire might have been lit, to drive away winter or just barbecue some ribs. Take a few moments to celebrate May Day.