May Day (May 1) is a holiday rich in history and folklore, celebrating the return of spring! Learn about some of the fun traditions, from May Day baskets to dancing around the maypole.
Origins of May Day
Did you know that May Day has its roots in astronomy? Traditionally, it was the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice! In ancient times, this was one of the Celtic cross-quarter days, which mark the midway points between the (four) solstices and equinoxes of the year.
As with many early holidays, May Day was rooted in agriculture. Springtime festivities filled with song and dance celebrated the sown fields starting to sprout. Cattle were driven to pasture, special bonfires were lit, and doors of houses as well as livestock were decorated with yellow May flowers. In the Middle Ages, the Gaelic people celebrated the festival of Beltane. Beltane means “Day of Fire.” People created large bonfires and danced at night to celebrate.
May Day has a long history and tradition in England, some of which eventually came to America. Children would dance around the Maypole holding onto colorful ribbons. People would “bring in the May” by gathering wildflowers and green branches, weaving of floral hoops and hair garlands, and crowning a May king and queen.
The Maypole Dance
Did you ever dance around the Maypole as a child? Wrapping a Maypole with colorful ribbons is a joyous tradition that still exists in some schools and communities.
- Originally, the Maypole was a living tree chosen from the woods with much merrymaking. Ancient Celts danced around the tree, praying for the fertility of their crops and all living things! For younger people, there was the possibility of courtship. If a young woman and man paired by sundown, their courtship continued so that the couple could get to know each other and, possibly, marry 6 weeks later on June’s Midsummer’s Day. This is how the “June wedding” became a tradition.
- In the Middle Ages, all villages had Maypoles. Towns would compete to see who had the tallest or best Maypole. Over time, this Old English festival incorporated dance performances, plays, and literature. People would crown a “May Queen” for the day’s festivities.
The strict Puritans of New England considered the celebrations of May Day to be licentious and pagan, so they forbade its observance, and the springtime holiday never became an important part of American culture as it was in many European countries.
Interestingly, from the late 19th century through the 1950s, the Maypole dance and festivities became a rite of spring at some U.S. colleges. Seen as a wholesome tradition, this celebration often included class plays, Scottish dancing, Morris dancing, a cappella concerts, and cultural dancing and music displays.
In the 1960s and 1970s, interest waned; the May Queen and her court became more of a popularity contest. Today, the Maypole dance is mainly celebrated in schools (from elementary though college) as a fun spring activity.
The Maypole Festival: Courting and Declarations of Love
In Germany it is still celebrated: the Maypole festival. The tree is planted in the village square or the market at the end of April or on May 1. In Limburg and the Achterhoek, a maypole is still placed at the highest point of new houses. In this case too, the maypole symbolizes prosperity and fertility.
Read more about the old traditions and courtship during the Dutch Maypole festivities here:
The Maypole festival occurred in Western Europe, but the festival was also known among the Germanic and West Slavic peoples. The festival heralds the beginning of summer with the accompanying growth and blossoming of nature. The maypole symbolizes fertility. The tradition got a Christian touch during the Middle Ages, according to the church the maypole symbolized Mary, but the original Germanic version survived. That is why there was mainly partying and drinking during the Maypole festival. In the Netherlands, the tradition lasted until the 19th century.
The May Guild and the May Count
The May Guild organized the party, this guild was led by the May Count. He could be recognized by his green crown. The day was dominated by may fires, may songs, parades (‘Meynachten’) and waldhorns made from the bark of a willow or alder. Horns (but also whistles) were blown to chase away the witches and evil spirits.
The green crown
The maypole was colorfully decorated with ribbons, wreaths, crowns, green branches and flowers. It was tradition for the mayor to sit at the maypole, whereupon the girls of the town or village stood in a circle around the tree and sang a maysong. The Maygrave then decided who was his May Countess (also known as May Queen) by throwing his green crown at a girl.
Courtship and Rejection in the 18th and 19th Centuries
In addition to the symbol of prosperity and fertility, the maypole was also seen as a symbol of love. Boys therefore planted maypoles ( maybranch) in front of the houses of the girls they liked. The way the tree was decorated expressed exactly how the boy felt about the girl. This could sometimes be disappointing: if the tree was decorated with thorny flowers, this meant that he thought the girl was haughty. Read Here Jonkheid, venstersvrijen, spinnen ( Importance of social cohesionn for community) – in Dutch
An elder in the maypole meant that the girl was seen as licentious. The cherry branch meant that the girl in question wasn’t particularly picky. A straw doll meant that the girl had fooled a previous love and there were many more symbols. However, the premise of the maypole planting was to declare love.
Well in front of my sweetheart door
I plant, as a lover’s pawn,
The Maypole, sweet with fragrance,
And offer her heart and hand;
And tell her, “Sweet! come happy
Now standing in front of your window;
The sweet May tide,
Oh! done so quickly.”
A new spring and a new sound
A new spring and a new sound: I want this song to sound like the whistle, That I often heard before a summer night In an old town, along the water canal – It was dark in the house, but the quiet street Collected twilight, the sky shone late Still light, a golden white shine fell About the facades in my window frame. Then a boy blew like an organ pipe, The sounds shake in the air so ripe Like young cherries, get used to a spring wind disappears into the bush and begins his journey. (p. 11)
Een nieuwe lente en een nieuw geluid:
Ik wil dat dit lied klinkt als het gefluit,
Dat ik vaak hoorde voor een zomernacht
In een oud stadje, langs de watergracht –
In huis was ’t donker, maar de stille straat
Vergaarde schemer, aan de lucht blonk laat
Nog licht, er viel een gouden blanke schijn
Over de gevels in mijn raamkozijn.
Dan blies een jongen als een orgelpijp,
De klanken schudden in de lucht zoo rijp
Als jonge kersen, wen een lentewind
In ’t boschje opgaat en zijn reis begint.
….This is the beginning of Herman Gorter’s great epic Mei, which appeared in March 1889. The first line is perhaps the most famous line in Dutch literature. Herman Gorter had been working on his May in solitude for months. The great narrative poem Mei has no fewer than 4381 lines of verse. Although he had already written some poems and a shorter epic, ‘Lucifer’, the May was his official debut. It was pre-published in De Nieuwe Gids, the magazine of the Eighties, and made a huge impression at the time. Read here in Dutch
When we begin to look at some of the other elements of the George myth a completely different picture begins to emerge. One of the most telling clues to the genuine mystery behind the George phenomenon is in the name itself.
The word begins and ends with the root Ge. This is one of the oldest words known, occurring in Sumerian, Egyptian, Greek and Indo-European languages. It means Earth. Everyday words still in common use such as Ge-ology or Ge-ography show how persistent this root has been over at least the last six thousand years.
The etymology of George thus appears to show that he may originally have been an Earth-God connected with fertility, whose widespread worship in the ancient world was absorbed by Constantine’s attempts to make early Christianity into an all-inclusive religion that would become a vehicle for Roman bureaucracy. To reinforce this view the Greek translation of the name means ‘Earth-worker’ or ‘Tiller of the soil’.
see also: Time of Spring in Sufism and folklores
St. George and the Miracle of Mons– Belgium
Dragon-slaying in Beersel – Holland
A MEDIEVAL VILLAGE IS THREATENED BY A FIRE-BREATHING DRAGON. HUMAN SACRIFICE APPEARS TO BE THE ONLY WAY TO KEEP THE MONSTER AT BAY. LOTS ARE DRAWN TO DECIDE WHO IS TO SUFFER THIS DREADFUL DEATH. AND THEN, ONE DAY, IT IS THE TURN OF THE KING’S OWN DAUGHTER…THAT IS, UNTIL A BRAVE KNIGHT APPEARS…”
This thrilling and engrossing legend about good and evil is brought to life in a visually theatrical way in an immense open-air spectacle in Beesel in Limburg on the 12-13-14-18-19-20th August 2016.
Snorting steeds; a rebel-rousing rabble and , of course, a terrifying dragon take you back to a mythical age in the past. Different storylines guarantee a varied, fascinating and lively performance with music, song, fights, drama and comedy. With more than 400 actors taking part you will be immersed in the Middle Ages. Share the experiences of the villagers, the army and the royal court – will they be able to defeat the poisonous dragon?
The legend of St. George and the Dragon has been performed in Beesel since 1736. Once every seven years the entire village finds itself involved in the eternal battle between Good and Evil. What began as a short play performed by a small cast has evolved over the years into an Open-Air Pageant enjoyed by 15,000 spectators on six occasions during the month of August. A mature theatre production with a rich background.
On Sunday 21st August, for the third time, a colourful historical parade will thread its way through the streets of Beesel. The parade starts at 14.00 hours and the costs are €3,50 per person. Spectators will find themselves “time-warped” into bygone days – entirely in the atmosphere of “Dragon-slaying”. Thanks to the interactive nature of this historical parade it’s as if you are actually back there in the Middle–Ages.
Tarasque – France and Spain
Throughout Provence, the most southerly part of France, there was a strong medieval tradition that the region was converted to Christianity soon after the death of Jesus, not by one of the apostles but by his personal friends – the family from Bethany, consisting of Mary Magdalene, Martha, and their brother Lazarus, together with two unrelated Marys mentioned in the gospels (the mother of James and John, and Mary Salome). They had all come to live there, fleeing from persecution. At Tarascon, a town near the Spanish border, attention was focused on St Martha, to whom the local church is dedicated. Read more here
The earliest Life of St Martha was written in Latin at some time between 1187 and 1212. One episode tells how, soon after coming to Tarascon, she heard that people there were terrorised by ‘a huge dragon, part land animal and part fish’ which lived in a forest beside the Rhône and had killed many people passing the spot or crossing the river. Attempts to destroy it always failed, since it would hide underwater. The description of the monster is vivid and detailed, and by no means that of a conventional dragon:
It was fatter than an ox, longer than a horse, with a lion’s face and head, teeth as sharp as swords, a horse’s mane, its back as sharp as an axe, bristling and piercing scales, six feet with bear’s claws, a serpent’s tail, and a shell on either side like a tortoise.
La Tarasca (del francés Tarasque, y éste del topónimo de la localidad de Tarascón, en Ariege, Francia) es una criatura mitológica cuyo origen se encuentra en una leyenda sobre Santa Marta. See here
More than four others – Frisian Folkstale
At that time there lived in the Grinzer Pein (Friesland) a young man who was called out that he was not afraid of anything. When a ferry had to be dug, he got a job there. He joined the team with twenty westerners. Those twenty westerners were as lazy as duckweed. They wanted him to do the work, so he got into trouble with them. Then they said, “If you don’t work, we’ll cut you in pieces.” But the young man laughed and said, “You should try that first.” And then those twenty westerners came up to him with open knives , but he knocked them down one by one, for he was not afraid. And that same evening, near the new ferry, one of the Westerners was found cut into strips. But that joung man had not done that, his own comrades wanted to get rid of that westerner. And because the young servant had fought with him, they thought, he will be blamed.
That turned out to be the case, because the nineteen westerners testified that he must have been the murderer of their comrade. He went to court, and because he would not confess, he was put on the rack, but he maintained his innocence, for he was not afraid of anything, not even the pain. Desesperate, they called a wizard, a real wizard. He had to scare him so he confessed. The wizard had him tied on a chair; then he was powerless. But they had tortured him so much that he could hardly speak.
And then he was given a cup of warm milk to drink. The magician looked straight at him and said, ‘Look at the ground in front of you!’ And then the young man noticed that his ten toes had turned into ten snakes. They grew out of his toes, they grew bigger and bigger and came closer and closer to his head. But he made those snakes drink one by one from the hot milk from the cup he had in his hands. The snakes writhed together again and fell asleep at his feet.
The wizard asked, “Aren’t you scared yet?” But he replied, “You haven’t got any of those beasts yet, because my cup isn’t empty yet.” Then the wizard turned the boy’s hair into flames and said that he would be consumed by these flames. But the young man asked: ‘Do you have tobacco in your pocket? I don’t have any tobacco with me, but my pipe does. Stop it in front of me for a moment, so I can at least light it on the flames and don’t have to use a match’.
And the third was that the sorcerer sat before him and said: If you will not confess, you will be sent to hell. ‘But the young servant laughed, for he was not afraid. The wizard looked straight at him and then the young man noticed that his body was turning into a skeleton. The magician said:
“Aren’t you scared yet? Remember – this is how you go to hell and stay there!” “Oh,” he said, “why should I be afraid? Such an old charnel house as I am now – there is no one in hell who knows me.” And he did not bow the neck.
However, he was sentenced to death. The executioner appeared and he was to be cut into four. He was already on the block to be chopped in four, then they asked him if he wasn’t scared yet. “No,” he said, “why should I be afraid? Our father always said I was worth more than four others. And if you cut me in four here, you’ll be dealing with not one, but four men in a minute.’ And he was not quartered, but they took him back to the cell.
That same night the devil came to him and left nothing to frighten him. He told him the most horrible stories and transformed himself into the most horrible forms. The devil became an old woman, with teeth as large and as sharp as razors, and threatened to bite his throat. The devil became a dragon with seven heads that spewed fire at him. He became a very large snake, with a mouth so wide that it could eat it in one sitting. But the young servant was not afraid. Only when the devil finally asked him if he felt any fear at all did he say, “No, I don’t, but you do!
And he began to tease him so furiously, he made such hideous noises, and he drew such crooked faces, that even the devil became frightened and threw himself to the ground and blew the retreat.
The judges came to the conclusion that a person that even the devil fears can never be a murderer. And he was acquitted…
Spring Festivity at Steigra – Germany
One of the four historical labyrinths in Germany is situated at Steigra in the Burgenlandkreis district in Saxony-Anhalt. It is also named Sweden Ring or Troy Town.
The layout is the classical type with 11 circuits. The exact time of origin is uncertain. Much points to the 17th century, in addition, an older origin would be conceivable. It lies beside a hill grave.
The turf labyrinth of Steigra kept over centuries. Nowadays it is maintained annually by the confirmands of the locality. The patron saint of the parish church is St George, and there is even a tavern St George.
Annually on Saturday after April 23, the day of St George, takes place a spring celebration at the labyrinth. This year that was on April 26, 2008. Read more here
Sun Dance of the Native Spirits
The Sun Dance is a ceremony practiced by some Native Americans and Indigenous peoples in Canada, primarily those of the Plains cultures. It usually involves the community gathering together to pray for healing. Individuals make personal sacrifices on behalf of the community
Kill your Dragon
“Our only purpose is to give our love, respect and service to God but if given the opportunity every person would be a pharaoh. His ego would declare itself the highest lord. We must kill the dragon that is our ego and then we will find Allah with us and around us and within us” Sheikh Nazim al Haqqani
Looking to the Spiritual vertical way, as the Maypole do, gives us an opportunity of discerning an understanding between Non-Virtues and Virtues, developing Spiritual values needed in our times :. Read here: Maypole the Principle of verticality
by the moon when she followeth him
by the day, when it showeth its splendor
by the night, when it covereth him with darkness
by the heaven, and him who built it
by the earth, and him who spread it forth
by the soul, and him who completely formed it
and inspired into the same its faculty of distinguishing, and power of choosing, wickedness and piety: now is he who hath purified the same, happy
but he who hath corrupted the same, is miserable.
1-10 Good and evil
BY the Sun, and its rising brightness by the moon when she followeth himby the day, when it showeth its splendorby the night, when it covereth him with darknessby the heaven, and him who built itby the earth, and him who spread it forthby the soul, and him who completely formed itand inspired into the same its faculty of distinguishing, and power of choosing, wickedness and piety: now is he who hath purified the same, happybut he who hath corrupted the same, is miserable.
The first part deals with three things:-:
1-That just as the sun and the moon, the day and the night, the earth and the sky, are different from each other and contradictory in their effects and results, so are the good and the evil different front each other and contradictory in their effects and results; they are neither alike in their outward appearance nor can they be alike in their results.
2-That God after giving the human self powers of the body, sense and mind has not left it uninformed in the world, but has instilled into his unconscious by means of a natural inspiration the distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, and the sense of the good to be good and of the evil to be evil.
3-That the future of man depends on how by using the powers of discrimination, will and judgement that Allah has endowed him with, he develops the good and suppresses the evil tendencies of the self. If he develops the good inclination and frees his self of the evil inclinations, he will attain to eternal success, and if, on the contrary, he suppresses the good and promotes the evil, he will meet with disappointment and failure. Sahl al-Tustari (d. 896), a Sufi and scholar of the Qur’an, mentions, “By the day when it reveals her [the sun],He said:This means: the light of faith removes the darkness of ignorance and extinguishes the flames of the Fire.