A Brief History of Mayday

By Tim Lambert

The Month of May

The month of May is probably named after Maia the Roman goddess who caused plants to grow. In the past Mayday was a day of rejoicing. It meant the return of warm weather and long summer evenings. In the past winters must have been much harder than they are today. There was no central heating, no electric blankets, and no electric lights. Until the 16th century, even glass windows were a luxury, and ordinary people could not afford them. People must have been very glad to see summer arrive.

The Romans had a festival called Floralia at the end of April and the beginning of May but there is no evidence that it has any connection with our modern Mayday celebrations. It was held in honor of Flora the goddess of flowers.

The May Pole

In the late Middle Ages, people in England began dancing around a Maypole. (Although they did not tie ribbons to the pole. (The Victorians invented that). In 1644 during the Civil War in England, the Puritans banned the Maypole as they believed it had pagan origins. However, after the Restoration in 1660 Maypoles became common again.

On Mayday, people picked wildflowers they filled garlands of flowers to decorate their homes. Girls would wash their faces in the morning dew as they believed that would make them beautiful!

In the late 18th century a man covered in green leaves in some British towns on Mayday. He was called Jack-in-the-green. However, Jack-in-the-green is certainly not an ancient custom. There is no record of him before the 1770s!

In 1889 1 May was made International Labor Day. In Britain the first Monday in May was made a bank holiday in 1978. Meanwhile, on 1 May 1851, Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace. The Empire State Building was opened on 1 May 1931.

Last revised 2024