You might not realize it, but May Day – an ancient spring festival in the Northern Hemisphere – is an astronomical holiday. It’s one of the year’s four cross-quarter days, or a day that falls more or less midway between an equinox and solstice, in this case the March equinox and June solstice. The other cross-quarter days are Groundhog Day on February 2, Lammas on August 1 and Halloween on October 31. May Day also stems from the Celtic festival of Beltane, which was related to the waxing power of the sun as we in the Northern Hemisphere move closer to summer. At Beltane, people lit fires through which livestock were driven and around which people danced, moving in the same direction that the sun crosses the sky.
Wrapping a Maypole with colorful ribbons is perhaps the best known of all May Day traditions. In the Middle Ages, English villages all had Maypoles, which were actual trees brought in from the woods in the midst of rejoicing and raucous merrymaking. Maypoles came in many sizes, and villages were said to compete with each other to show whose Maypole was tallest. Maypoles were usually set up for the day in small towns, but in London and the larger towns they were erected permanently.
We’re not too far away from a time in the late 20th century when people left homemade May baskets filled with spring flowers and sweets on each others’ doorsteps, usually anonymously. I can remember doing this as a child. Maybe it’s a tradition that can be revived.
Bottom line: May 1 is one of four cross-quarter days, midway between an equinox and a solstice. It stems from the ancient festival of Beltane, which relates to the waxing power of the sun at this time of year. Wrapping a Maypole is its most recognized tradition.
Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. "Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers," she says.