This blog post was updated on July 8, 2021.
May Day, celebrated each year on May 1st, originated as a pagan holiday in pre-Christian Europe that marked the beginning of summer. Today, it is a popular secular holiday that is celebrated in many corners of the globe, and each country does it a bit differently. I’ve noticed that May Day celebrations have waned a bit in the U.S., and I’m determined to bring them back this year. In that vein, here are five international May Day traditions that you can integrate into your own May Day celebration, wherever you may find yourself in the world.
In England, it’s traditional to erect a tall Maypole on the village green (in the center of the village). The pole, made from a tree trunk or piece of wood, is decorated with flowers and ribbons are tied to the top. During the festivities, each person grabs a ribbon and dances around the Maypole, wrapping and weaving the ribbons around it. (This is also done in Germany.) Usually there is live music accompanying the festivities. I’m going to invite my daughter’s friends over and give this a whirl in my back yard today. (Wish me luck with the neighbors!)
Lily-of-the-Valley Bouquets (France)
In France, May Day is celebrated in conjunction with La Fête du Travail (worker’s rights day). It’s customary to give bouquets of lily-of-the-valley to loved ones. The background on this is that King Charles IX of France was presented with lily-of-the-valley on May 1, 1561. He liked them so much that he decided to give bouquets of this fragrant flower to the ladies of his court each year on May 1. The tradition stuck, and lily-of-the-valley bouquets are still given out regularly today. Since I can’t be in France this year, I’m going to pick a lily-of-the-valley bouquet and put it in the middle of the table for our May Day dinner.
May Baskets (Germany)
Growing up in the Midwestern U.S., we made May baskets each year – paper cones tied with a ribbon and filled with flowers or baked goods. We hung them on every door handle in the neighborhood, sometimes ringing the doorbell and then running away (the goal was always to remain anonymous). I never realized that this was adapted from a Germanic tradition, but it makes sense given what a large German immigrant population there is in the Midwest. In Germany, women anonymously place roses or rice in the form of a heart outside the house of their loved one. Sometimes they put the rice or flowers in a basket to keep them contained. This year, I’m going to revive the May basket tradition of my youth and make them with my daughter for her grandparents.