May Day might seem to be quite a new observance, for it only became a bank holiday in 1978 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, the day has been observed since 1871 and was strongly connected with the Beltane festival. However, holiday celebrations are rooted in the pagan times. The day probably used to be a Roman festival celebrating the beginning of summer and the end of winter season. It was also strongly connected with honouring the Roman goddess – Flora, the goddess of the flowering of plants. Many traditions and customs from that time, connected with new life and fertility, can also be observed in modern times.
The most popular traditions connected with Early May Bank Holiday include: maypole dancing, Morris dancing, and crowning the May Queen. Maypole dancing is also rooted in the Roman Britain around 2,000 years ago. The custom might have been started by soldiers, who danced around decorated trees and thanked their goddess Flora for spring. First maypoles were probably chopped down trees with flowing ribbons pinned to the top. Today it is usually a tall pole with colourful ribbons for children, mainly girls, to dance around. Morris dancing is also an important element of May Day celebrations. Dancers dressed in white clothes with bells and scarves perform accompanied by accordion music.
May Day festivals and parades are also always full of people dressed up in funny costumes. Probably the most recognizable one is Jack in the Green, that represents a symbol of fertility, the Green Man. The most important person at the parade, however, is definitely the May Queen – a girl dressed up in a white gown and a crown or a tiara, decorated with leaves and flowers as a symbol of spring and purity.
Many popular festivals take place in the United Kingdom on or around the first Monday of May. In Edinburgh, for example, there is a Beltane Fire Festival, which includes spectacular fire displays, drumming and processions. In Shropshire, on the other hand, during the Clun Green Man Festival, the Frost Queen is being defeated by the Green Man, which constitutes the guarantee of the summer season. In Cornwall there is a festival that is said to be even “bigger than Christmas”. Many cities also hold Jack-in-the-Green festivals, where citizens can meet even more than one Green Man.
Did you know?
There were only 2 years in the history of Early May Bank Holiday, when the date was changed from the first Monday of May to another day. The first time was in 1995, when the observance was moved from May 1 to May 8, in order to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day. The second time was year 2020, which marked the 75th VE Day, so the celebrations were decided to be moved to May 8.
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