Today, cultures around the world enjoy various May Day celebrations. A mid-way point between spring and summer, the day often serves as a reminder of warm days ahead and a celebration of spring’s upcoming bounty. In the U.S., images of maypoles, carnivals and flower-filled festivities often come to mind, but the celebration has more diverse beginnings than that.
An age-old pagan tale describes a night festival lit by bonfires and witches that gather in Germany’s forested Harz Mountains to await the arrival of spring. Over time, the celebration became associated with the English missionary, Saint Walpurga, and the celebration became known as Walpurgisnacht. As an ode to the pagan tale, the modern-day celebration involves bonfires and witch costumes and is celebrated on May 1, the date Saint Walpurga was canonized.
Now considered folklore, the Beltane festival used to signal the beginning of the pastoral season, and is one of four seasonal festivals in traditional Gaelic culture. Herding livestock is a deep-rooted part of Irish and Scottish culture, and the celebration of Beltane meant it was time to drive cattle out into the pastures. Bonfires were an integral part of the festival and were believed to provide protection and good fortune for the coming season. Gaelic celebrants would also decorate their doors and home with yellow flowers, which symbolized fire.
Floralia in ancient Rome The oldest known May celebration is the ancient Roman festival of Floralia. In honor of the goddess Flora, Roman citizens gathered for games, dancing, and merriment. Animals and vegetables that signified fertility were given to the crowds as a way to welcome a fruitful spring season in Italy.
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