May Day 2020: why we celebrate the public holiday – Maypoles and other traditions explained

May Day is a public bank holiday that usually takes place on the first Monday of May each year
May 1780:  Couples dance around the Maypole to tunes played on the fiddle (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)May 1780:  Couples dance around the Maypole to tunes played on the fiddle (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
May 1780: Couples dance around the Maypole to tunes played on the fiddle (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Normally, that would’ve meant that 4 May would have been a bank holiday in 2020.

Where did May Day come from?

(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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Nevertheless, May Day is a holiday rooted in ancient traditions. In Roman times, the festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers and spring, took place, while Celts celebrated the festival of Beltane on 1 May.

The latter marked the halfway point between spring and summer, mirroring the Pagan festival of Samain, which falls between autumn and winter.

May Day today retains many of the old customs which brought it to life. Spring time has long been seen as a period of fertility and new life. Across the UK, people dress up, paint their faces in a colourful fashion, and dance around to music and song.

How is May Day associated with Labour Day?

In modern times, the bank holiday, with an actual day off work, has been held since 1978 when provision were made in the Banking and Financial Dealings Act. It is a holiday in countries across Europe and the Northern Hemisphere.

Also known colloquially as Workers' Day or simply as Labour Day, May Day also marks a momentous day for labourers and the working classes in the likes of Britain and the US.

It was first promoted by the international labour movement in the US, but is aligned with May Day.

Labour Day was started by socialist and communist parties to commemorate the Haymarket affair, which happened on 4 May 1886 in Chicago. It was the starting point for workers' rights, the eight-hour day, and for fairer, more respectful working conditions.

Why do we dance around the maypole?

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In the UK there are parades, morris dancers, maypole dancing, the crowning of the Queen of May, flower picking, pub visits and picnics. Although not many of these things will be happening this year.

If the day brings sunshine, the day might prove extremely merry indeed. Villages and rural areas are often more likely to be more traditional in their celebrations.

For many, it just means a day at the pub.

But just why do some people dance around the maypole?

The origins of the maypole actually remain unknown, though it has been speculated that the maypole originally had some importance in the Germanic paganism of Iron Age and early Medieval cultures.

The tradition may even have survived the 'Christianisation' of Europe, although it appears to have lost any and all of its original meaning whether that is the case or not.

Certain studies have found that the maypole was a recorded practice in many parts of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, though it became less popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Some scholars have ever theorised the maypole to be of phallic significance, including the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (but then of course he would).

English historian Ronald Hutton prudishly refuted these claims, saying there was "no sign that the people who used maypoles thought that they were phallic" and that "they were not carved to appear so."

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