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Happy May Day! Today is an astronomy holiday

Sphere around Earth with equinoxes, solstices, and cross-quarter days marked.
Equinoxes, solstices and cross-quarter days are all hallmarks of Earth’s orbit around the sun. May Day is the 2nd cross-quarter day of the year. Illustration via NASA.

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May Day is May 1

You might not realize it, but May Day – an ancient spring festival in the Northern Hemisphere – is an astronomy holiday. It’s one of the year’s four cross-quarter days. That is, it’s a day that falls more or less midway between an equinox and solstice. In this case, it’s between 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. It was related to the waxing power of the sun as we in the Northern Hemisphere move closer to summer. At Beltane, people drove livestock through lit fires and people danced around them. They were all moving in the same direction that the sun crosses the sky.

In Hawaii, May Day is Lei Day, a statewide celebration of the aloha spirit and the giving of the flower lei.

May Day and maypoles

Of course, 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. They were part of the rejoicing and raucous merrymaking of May Day.

Maypoles came in many sizes. And there was competition among the villages to show whose maypole was the tallest. In small towns, maypoles were usually set up for the day. But they were erected permanently in London and the larger towns.

Here’s a WikiHow on how to do a maypole dance

May Day: Group of children holding ribbons off a maypole.
A May Day celebration showing children dancing around a maypole. This took place on the Village Green in Tewin, near Welwyn Garden City, United Kingdom. Image via Paul Barnett/ Wikimedia Commons. (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED).
Children holding on to ribbons off a maypole and church in the background.
Maypole dancing at the village’s fair at Bishopstone, East Sussex, with the tower of St Andrew’s parish church in the background. Image via Kevin Gordon/ Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED).

May baskets can brighten someone’s day

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 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. So, happy May Day 2024!

Read more: Halloween is a cross-quarter day

Read more: Groundhog Day is an astronomy holiday

May 1, 2024
Astronomy Essentials

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Deborah Byrd

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