Whistle Stop


May Day

Today is May 1st, and in the United Kingdom, it is May Day. This is a national holiday which officially celebrates the start of summer. It is celebrated all around the UK and has an interesting history, so let’s take a look at some traditions for this summery celebration!


May Day was originally a Pagan holiday, celebrating the end of the sowing season and a time when the weather was getting warmer and people could reap the harvest they had sown. But as Christianity spread through Europe, this and many other Pagan holidays lost their significance, and were either combined with Christian holidays such as Christmas and Easter, or transformed into non-religious festivals.
Interestingly, May Day was abolished and banned in the middle of the seventeenth century when the Protestants took over the ruling of England and Ireland. However, when Charles II took the throne in 1660, it was revived. Then, in February 2011, the UK government considered replacing the May Day national holiday with a day in October, but nothing ever came of this.

Traditions around the UK

Just like in the rest of the UK, May Day has been celebrated in Ireland since Pagan times. In those days, people lit bonfires to symbolise the arrival of summer and to banish the long winter nights. This tradition is no longer widely practised, although some smaller towns and villages do still light bonfires.

In Scotland, May Day is a big holiday with lots of street parties and little festivals. In the capital city of Edinburgh, they hold an event called the Beltane Fire Festival throughout the night of May Eve, and into May Day morning. In the olden days too, it was thought that if a young woman climbed Arthur’s Seat, one of the city’s most famous natural attractions and the home of Edinburgh Castle, and washed her face in the morning dew, she would be beautiful for the rest of her life.

One of the most popular May Day traditions that still exists today all around the UK is Maypole dancing. In this dance, a tall pole is put up in the middle of a public square, and pairs of boys and girls stand around it, each holding the end of a ribbon, all of which are different colours and are tied to the pole at the top. The children then dance around each other: the boys dance in one direction and the girls go in the other, as their multi-coloured ribbons weave around each other and meet at the base. This is called tying the maypole and is still practiced today – I’ve even done it at school! Watch the video below for a real-life Maypole dance!