As with most traditions rooted in our pagan past, folklorists have conflicting views about the origins of the various May Day customs practiced in the British Isles today, containing as they do a mixture of Celtic and Norse influences combined with theatrical flourishes introduced by British antiquarians of the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the Germanic tradition, Walpurgis Night, on April 30th, is a moon festival sacred to the goddess Freya, "Walpurga" being one of her names. The re-dedication of the holiday to "St. Walpurga" was a later Christian addition. Freya is generally known today as the goddess of love and beauty in Norse mythology (as opposed to Freja, goddess of marriage and family), but she was more complex and more interesting than that: not a virgin maiden but a figure representing women's magic, sexuality, and independence -- as well as, in her dark aspect, a patron deity of war and death in battle. She wears a cloak of falcon feathers and the magical gold necklace called Brísingamen, and rides in a chariot pulled by cats, the sacred boar Hildisvíni at her side. Maypole dancing comes down to us from the rites of spring dedicated to Freya, although the pole was originally a living tree representing Yggdrasill, the enormous ash tree that is the great "world tree" of Norse cosmology.
In the British Isles, Beltane, celebrated on May 1st, is a moon festival that falls midway between the Spring Equinox and Summer Soltice, marking the return of light and summer, the fertility of the land ensured by the mating and hand-fasting of the Great Goddess and her consort. (For many years the Christian church sought to ban May Day festivities because of this "lewd" context as a frank celebration of sexuality and fecundity.) Recorded evidence of Maypole Dancing goes back at least to the 14th century, the texts suggesting the custom was very old even then, although the form of the dance known best today, with decorative children dancing in village squares, owes as much to the romanticism of the Victorians as it does to ancient tradition.
The name "Beltane" derives from Bel, the Celtic god of fire, honored and propitiated with bonfires lit on sacred hills. Smoke from the fire blessed the fields, animals, and community, and maintained the wary, careful balance between the human and faery realms. "Traditionally," writes Glennie Kindred (in Sacred Celebrations), "all fires in the community were put out and a special fire was kindled for Beltane. This was the Teineigen, the 'need fire.' People jumped the fire to purify, cleanse and to bring fertility. Couples jumped the fire together to pledge themselves to each other. Cattle and other animals were driven through the smoke as a protection from disease and to bring fertility. At the end of the evening, the villagers would take some of the Teineigen to start their fires anew."
May Day customs vary across Britain, but are generally less elaborate than in past times, when entire villages were festooned with greenery and flowers: boughs of rowan, birch, and ivy, and May Blossoms (from hawthorn trees). Beltane ceremonies are on the rise again, but in a few places around the country they have never really stopped -- the Obby Oss festivities in Cornwall being one well-known example.
Here in Chagford, we celebrate May Day in a variety of ways: sometimes elaborately, with a traditional Jack-in-the-Green and Obby Oss, and sometimes more simply: just food, drink, and music around a communal fire. (For photographs of our May Days, go here.) You can read about the Jack-in-the-Green (and other myths of the woods) here, about the theatrical Beltane Fire Society in Edinburgh here, and about other Beltane rites and festivities across Britain here. Have a look at ‘Tis the Season to Be Blooming, a charming collection of spring festival photographs from National Geographic's archives; also at vintage film clips of Padstow's 'Obby 'Oss celebrations in 1930 and 1951.
And be sure to light a fire tonight (a bonfire is best, but a candle will work too) in order to bless the months ahead, protect you from fairy mischief, and connect you with the folkloric past that we all share, no matter what our ethnic background.
Below, Beltane Border Morris, our fabulous local Border Morris troupe (or "side," as these groups are traditionally called), dancing the sun up at Haytor on Dartmoor. They do this on May Day every year, rain or shine.
Happy May Day!
Pictures: Maypole Dancing in 1915, a Maypole Dance art installation by Kristi Malakoff, Maypole Dancing at Leeds Castle in 1955, Maypole Dancing in Wiltshire in 2010, Maypole Dancing in Chagford Square in 2012, the God & Goddess of the Green by Charles Vess, May blossom, a Jack in the Green in Hastings, a poster for the 2015 Chagford Jack in the Green procession (art by Virginia Lee), and Green Women by Brian Froud.