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May Day

Updated: Nov 5, 2022

By Phyllis

Overview and History

May Day is observed on the first day of May, generally as a festival of spring and the reawakening of nature.

May Day, like many holidays, has pagan roots. It later became a Christian holiday and now, in most places, is a secular celebration. Most celebrations include flowers, dancing around a decorated May Pole, and the naming of a May Queen and/or King.

The earliest known celebration of May Day was during the Roman Republic, around 500 BC. It was called Floralia, named after Flora, the goddess of flowers. It was held over three days, April 27 to May 1 and started with a theatrical performance.

Another early celebration originated in Ireland where it was called Beltaine; the festival is mentioned in early Irish literature. The celebration in Ireland was marked by bonfires, thought to protect residents and their crops and animals. All household fires were prohibited until the bonfires ended. People would lead their animals around the bonfires for luck and then enjoy a feast. Beltaine festivities died out in the 1950’s, but have lately been revived.

Bonfire at the Beltane Fire Festival 2019, Calton Hill, Edinburgh. The reunited May Queen and Green Man face the fire, while dancers stop to raise their arms to heaven.

May Day is widely celebrated worldwide. I’ll describe for you the customs in Finland with the help of Marja, and Germany and the United States, with the help of Google.

Maypole dancing at the Village Fair on the Egg (village green) at Bishopstone, East Sussex, with the tower of St Andrew’s parish church in the background,


With Marja

In Finland, May Day is called Vappu, and it is the unofficial beginning of spring. It is one of Finland’s most popular holidays, a joyful, colorful celebration, with hordes of people out on the streets enjoying such treats as funnel cakes and special donuts called munkii. College students are especially partial to vappu, in part because of the drinking. The traditional beverage for Vappu is sima (mead). Part of the celebration is the wearing of white graduation caps, but this tradition is not limited to people; many municipal statues are also adorned with the caps.

American Finnish communities are organizing Vappu parties right here in Michigan. One celebration is hosted by the Finlandia Foundation National at the Finnish Center in Farmington Hills. The event includes a potluck and programs for both kids and adults.

Photos from May Day Celebrations in Finland

May Day festivities in Tampere Central Square, Finland.

1 cup quark or sour cream 2/3 cup water

2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast 1 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup sugar 1 tablespoon cardamom

1 large egg 4 cups all-purpose flour, divided

1/4 cup butter, softened 1 quart canola oil, for frying

3/4 cup sugar, for garnish

In a small pan, combine quark and water and heat until lukewarm. (About 100 F.) In a large bowl, combine quark mixture with yeast. Stir to dissolve. Add salt, sugar, cardamom, egg, and 2 cups of flour. Mix well, then add an additional 1 1/3 cup of flour and the softened butter. Allow dough to rest for 20 minutes. Sprinkle remaining 2/3 cup of flour onto work surface. Turn out the doughnut batter onto the floured surface and divide the dough into 16 balls. Stretch to form a hole in the center to make the doughnuts. Place formed doughnuts on a cookie sheet and allow to rest again for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, fill a large shallow pan with canola oil at least 2-inches deep. Heat oil over medium-high heat until it reaches 350 F. Fry the doughnuts 2 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove the doughnuts from the hot oil and drain on paper towels. Once they have cooled slightly, toss with sugar and serve immediately.


In Germany, Walpurgisnacht, is a secular celebration held on the night before May Day and include bonfires. Its motto: “Tanz in den Mai” (“Dance into May”).

On May 1, men set up a decorated May Pole in the yard of a potential sweetheart as a sign of affection; however, a tree wrapped only in white streamers is a sign of dislike. Women often place roses or rice in the form of a heart at the house of their beloved. All this is done secretly, but some people may provide a hint of their identity.

Munich, Germany

United States

May Day in the United States started in the nineteenth century. Baskets, often homemade out of wallpaper scraps, paper or milk cartons, were filled with flowers, candy or small gifts and hung on the doors of friends, relatives and elderly neighbors. The bringer of the basket would knock on the door and then run away. In some cases, the basket could be a declaration of affection and, if the person who hung the basket was seen, the recipient could chase after them for a kiss. The May Tree or Pole was another tradition. A pole or tree was decorated and then ribbons were hung from the top. Children would grab the ribbons and wind around the pole and each other.

In May of 1925, two children were able to sneak up to the White House to hang a basket on the front door. First Lady Grace Coolidge found the kids and gave them spring flowers.

Louisa May Alcott wrote about May Basket Day in New England in her 1880 children’s book Jack and Jill. From Alcott’s story: “Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark; such droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or girls ran into one another’s arms as they crept up and down steps on the sly; such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling—it was almost a pity that May-day did not come oftener.”

Unfortunately, May Day celebrations waned in most areas of the States around 1960.


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