Like a lot of traditions, the idea of the May Day celebration became one thing, then another and then fell into disfavor because of a different idea all together.
May Day grew from Celtic tradition of Beltane and the Germanic Walpurgis Night. These festivals celebrate the coming of Spring. As Christianity took hold throughout Europe it became less of a pagan holiday and more of a secular one; people simply took the opportunity to get outside and celebrate.
The earliest settlers to America brought the tradition with them, although the Puritans did their best to stamp it out. One of the most notorious instances came when Thomas Morton formed a breakaway colony called Merrymount. His free-thinking colony was eventually stamped out by Governor William Bradford and Captain Miles Standish. Morton wrote:
“The inhabitants of Merrymount … did devise amongst themselves to have … Revels, and merriment after the old English custom … & therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beer, & provided a case of bottles to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of that day. And upon Mayday they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drums, guns, pistols, and other fitting instruments, for that purpose; and there erected it with the help of Savages, that came thither of purpose to see the manner of our Revels…”
In the mid-20th Century, we stopped celebrating May Day as it became associated with the Soviet Union’s International Workers Day. No one wanted anything to do with the taint of Communism. The first time I remember celebrating May Day was ironically in Russia. In 1995, I was on my fourth trip to Russia as a freelance journalist. A friend invited me to visit the Caucuses in southern Russia.
We flew to the airport in Mineralnye Vody (Mineral Water) and then traveled up to Mount Elbrus—the highest peak in Europe. Communism was over, but they didn’t want to lose the holiday. We had a picnic in the forest with fresh shashlik (shish-ka-bobs) and plenty of toasting, music and dancing. Did I mention the toasting?Wow.
Anyway, I think we are missing out by not celebrating May Day. We don’t need another “official’ holiday. That tends to take some of the fun out of holidays anyway, when they become “recognized”. I think we need to make May Day like St. Patrick’s Day…an excuse for some revelry and enjoyment. The people of Merrymount had it right and the people I met in the Caucuses did too.
I think it is time to take May Day back. Go out and get some merriment today!