At Helston, Cornwall, on May 8th the townsfolk have for centuries celebrated Furry Day, with dances, songs and rites whose origins and purpose have long been lost in the mists of time.
The English for two hundred years or more celebrated Shick-Shack Day (or, Oak Apple Day) on May 29th, the birthday of King Charles II who brought back monarchy to Britain after the strict Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell.
May, however, is known especially for May Day, the first day of the month, which in olden times was celebrated as the great, colourful Spring festival, with May poles that were danced around, and fairs at which dramas, often featuring Robin Hood and his “merrie men”, were performed. Morris (folk) dancers were and still are a delightful part of the English May Day. (Psst did you know the book Ivanhoe is based loosely on Robin Hood?)
In the Celtic tradition, now popular with neo-Pagans, the day is called Beltane (or Beltaine). The Scots used to light bel-fires on the hilltops and drive their cattle through the flames in a ritual which was either to destroy vermin and protect the cattle from disease, or to prepare the beasts for sacrifice.
May Day commenced in ancient Rome, with youths going into the fields, dancing and singing in honour of Flora, goddess of fruits and flowers. The goddess Bona Dea, too, was celebrated at around this time, in women-only rites. There is also a connection with the ancient pagan feast of Beltane.
In recent years, May Day became an annual celebration in many countries not so much of the glories of Spring but of the traditions of the labour movement. This is because on May 1, 1886 in America, workers held the first nationwide strike, struggling to win an eight-hour working day. Three years later, in 1889, the anniversary was held as the first International Labor Day. On May Day, still, in towns and cities all over the world, workers’ organizations stage rallies and marches. In the United Kingdom, May Day is May 1, but a public holiday is held on the first Monday in May.
And, do you celebrate a festival in May? I do... my birthday. ;~)