Floralia, the Roman holiday that’s most likely the origin of May Day, the flowery holiday that initiates the summer season.
The festival honored Flora, the Sabine goddess who represented the reproductive abundance of nature, the sexual aspects of plants, and the attractiveness of flowers. The celebrations, which began on April 28 and went on for six days and nights, included games, pantomimes, plays, and stripteases. According to Suetonius in CE 68, the entertainment included a tightrope-walking elephant.
Everyone wore their most colorful clothes and decked themselves and their animals in flowers. Goats and hares were let loose—they represented fertility and sexuality. Persius, a Roman poet and satirist, wrote that crowds were showered with beans, vetches, and lupines, also symbols of fertility.
The Romans also used the Greek myth of Persephone (Roman: Proserpina) and Demeter (Roman: Ceres) to explain the changing seasons.
These same themes show up in the seasonal celebrations of Walpurgisnacht and May Day. The eve of 1 May (the night of 30 April) has also been celebrated for centuries in Germanic countries as Walpurgisnacht. The 8th-century abbess St Walpurga is credited with bringing Christianity to Germany. In Germanic folklore Walpurgisnacht, also called Hexennacht (literally ‘Witches’ Night’), is believed to be the night of a witches’ meeting as they await the coming of spring. As Walpurga’s feast was held on 1 May, she became associated with this May Day folk tradition. The eve of May Day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known as Walpurgisnacht.
Here in the UK, May Day has long been celebrated with a mix of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic traditions.
Other UK May Day traditions include dancing round a maypole. Although maypole dancing clearly goes back centuries, and is prevalent in many European countries, there is no agreement on when it began, or why!
May Day celebrations were banned in Britain by the Puritan government following the execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649. They were, however, reinstated with the restoration of Charles II in 1660.
The Celtic festival of Beltane takes place on 1 May. In Celtic tradition, the sun was held prisoner during winter months and was released each spring to rule the summer sky. Celtic peoples celebrated this with a huge feast, with great fires and dancing. ‘Jumping the Fire’ a ‘balefire’ in hopes of bringing good luck and beauty throughout the coming year is customary. There are nine logs burning to symbolise the nine sacred woods of a Beltane bonfire. Although Beltane is a fire festival, water was also worshipped at this time because of it’s aiding in the growth of plants, trees, and herbs along with the earth and sun. Beltane is a large festival on the wheel of the year adopted by many modern practitioners of witchcraft. It is about life but it is important to remember that life and death are an ongoing cycle and therefore Beltane lies opposite of Samhain (Halloween) on the wheel. The witch wears a crown of Hawthorne twigs and mint, the first is used in purification and fairy magic and the second, wild mint, is also used to purify in addition to stimulating passion. She leaves all of her worries on the ground as she jumps through the purifying inferno and the flames lick her skin. Emerging from her fiery baptism she lands anew on the other side and dances in the glowing light as the earth erupts with life all around her. 🌿🔥