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Spring 2006

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May Day, Then and Now  

Beltane, the Celtic celebration of May Day, means fire of the Celtic god of light (Bel).  His festival took place on May 1 and was one of the oldest and widely celebrated of all Celtic calendar festivals. Many rituals throughout Wales and Scotland today still resemble earlier celebrations.

Fire played an important part in the festivities. While home hearths were doused, a bonfire was built, the fire from which was used to rekindle each home. If you jumped through the bonfire it would protect you from bad luck and disease in the coming year. Couples would also announce their intention to marry by jumping over the fire. In ancient times, cattle were driven between two fires to protect them from both natural and supernatural evil and avoid bad luck.

The Maypole continues as a modern-day tradition. Originally, the pole was made from the trunk of a tall tree and decorated with flowers and ribbons. While children now perform the Maypole dance, women used to uphold the tradition. During the Maypole dance, some of the dancers move in one direction and the others dance in the opposite direction. By the end, the ribbons are wrapped around the pole, then the dancers reverse their direction to unwrap the ribbons.

Crowning a May Queen is another custom that continues to this day. Traditionally, a king was crowned as well and they both ruled over the festivities. In some areas, the royal couple was associated with Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

With a history dating to the Middle Ages, Morris dancers wear costumes with bells and ribbons to chase away the evil spirits of winter. He now travels with the Morris dancers, but in the past, Jack-in-the-Green was a villager disguised with greenery. He and his followers danced through town to collect money for a feast. The character was believed to be a spirit who guarded the English woods.

By 1644, the May Day festivals were too wild for the ruling Puritans who outlawed the celebrations. One of the traditions they definitely wanted to stop was the greenwood marriages through which young men and women spent the night in the forest together.

Another tradition of May Day is Beating the Bounds. Landowners walked their property to reaffirm their rights. Today, people beat the bounds by repairing fences and boundary markers on their land.

Today, May Day carries a strong association with the Labour Movement. In the UK, International Labour Day falls on May 1. While not always on May 1, the May Day bank holiday, honors the contribution of labor.  


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