May Day

David Cowles

Apr 26, 2022

A survey of Western traditions suggests that May Day might once have been the most important day of the year. That’s right, May Day! This day links pagan fertility rites, mythology, cosmology, Christian theology, and Marxist ideology. Quite a feat! Or is it?

May Day is coming! (Did I hear you say, “So what?") A survey of Western traditions suggests that May Day might once have been the most important day of the year. That’s right, May Day! This day links pagan fertility rites, mythology, cosmology, Christian theology, and Marxist ideology. Quite a feat! Or is it? It is a common concern with economic justice that ties these May Day traditions together.

May Day is a celebration of natural law, a fundamental ordering principle in the universe that underlies astronomical phenomena, natural processes, cultural expression, and ethical behavior.

Pagan May Day celebrations included many of the traditions we now associate with Christmas and Halloween. In pagan lore, the evenings of April 30 and October 31 are special times because that is when the spirit world comes closest to our physical world. On those two eves, it is as though a ‘portal’ opens that allows direct communication between the two realms.

Many of the activities that we now associate with October 31 were once also associated with April 30: bonfires, wild merry-making, and trick-or-treating, for example. Robert Graves (The White Goddess) wrote: “Christmas was merry in the Middle Ages, but May Day was still merrier.”

The symbol of May Day, pagan and Christian, is the maypole. Very roughly, maypoles are to May Day what Christmas trees are to Christmas. Trees are powerful symbols and important examples of the fertility of the earth and the maypole’s phallic shape connects human sexuality and reproduction with the more general fertility theme that trees represent.

In Norse mythology, a single tree, Yggdrasil, structures the entire cosmos. The maypole symbolizes Yggdrasil, the mythological backbone of the world. In Tudor England, it was customary for people to spend May Day eve making love in the fields to promote the fertility of the land. Children conceived on such occasions were known as ‘merry-be-gots’.

Beyond mythology, the Maypole also expresses an important astronomical concept. Early on, humans discovered that the periods of the earth’s rotation and revolution were trivial compared to a cycle known as the Precession of the Equinox. The maypole symbolizes axis mundi, the earth’s axis, whose ‘wobble’ defines this 26,000 year cycle.

Along with fertility, mythology, and cosmology, ancient May Day traditions share themes related to social and economic justice. It is here, of course, that ancient May Day rites intersect with later-day Christian and Marxist celebrations.

In 1891, the Second Congress of the Second International designated May 1st as the day dedicated to the celebration of work and the worker. In the Roman Catholic Church, the month of May is dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus. In 1955, Pope Pius XII also designated May 1st as the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, underscoring, yet again, May Day’s economic import.


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