May Day: How Do You Celebrate?

flowers for May Day

flowers for May Day

Today is May 1st, and depending on where you are in the world, the significance of the day runs for substantial to relatively unimportant.

When I was a kid, growing up in a small town, May day was a day of leaving flowers – anonymously – on neighbor’s doorsteps.  We’d gather up brightly colored construction paper, draw and decorate it, then roll and tape it into a cone.  As a final touch we’d attach a thin strip to make a long handle.  Once complete, we’d fill the cone with flowers from my grandmother’s garden.  I’m not exactly sure what flowers we’d put in it, but grandma’s garden always seemed to have an abundant supply of blooms to fill a dozen or so May baskets.  As I got older, the May baskets went from that rudimentary cone to woven ones, and then at some point to a true basket.

Once the cone was filled, the plotting began.  We would draw out a route through the neighborhood, targeting houses where we knew someone was home.  (This was a small town and we pretty much knew who’d be at home).  We tip toe to the front porch, hanging the cone of flowers over a door knob or carefully placing it on the welcome mat (again, smal town – we all had front porches and welcome mats), and then ring the door bell.  Quick as flash, we’d then run away to hide behind a fence, car, or other obstruction that was big enough for us to peek around and watch as someone answered the door.  Rather than having neighbors who were annoyed that someone was ringing the doorbell and taking off, there would be a gasp of appreciation as the neighbor glanced around, looking for who had left the flowers.

May Day is celebrated in many ways around the world.  Some notable celebrations include:

  • In Great Britain – Traditional celebrations include the crowning of a May Queen and dancing around a maypole.  The first Monday in May (not always May 1st, obviously) is a bank holiday, although there’s talk of abolishing it.  Across the commonwealth, small towns have festivals and celebrations to honor the coming of summer and the fertility of the season.
  • In France – The lily of the valley is the flower representing May Day and it goes back to the mid 1500s.  It’s customary to give a sprig of lily of the valley on May Day as a symbol of spring time.  It’s equally customary for the recipient of the flowers to give a kiss in return.  Dog rose flowers are often substituted for lily of the valley.
  • In Germany – In rural parts of the country, bonfires and the wrapping of a maypole occur on the evening before May Day.  Depending on your age, it’s either a relaxing custom or a chance to party.  Other traditions include the delivery of a streamer-wrapped maypole on May Day, delivering roses or heart to a loved one, or decorating the home with hearts.  Anonymity is optional.  Political parties and unions also host May Day activities, usually related to labor issues.
  • In Finland – May Day is a public holiday in Finland, with a street fair like quality about it.  Towns are decorates, people dress up, and celebrating spills out into the streets.
  • In Sweden – Most of the celebratory events move to the day before May Day (also called Walpurgis Night), and May 1st is celebrated as International Workers Day.
  • In Hawaii – May Day is also known as Lei Day as is a celebration of island and native Hawaiian culture.

Many countries celebrate May Day with an emphasis on labor traditions, whether as International Workers Day or other observance.  In some countries it’s called Labor Day (Jordan, Bolivia, and Belgium, for example).  In other countries (Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, among others), it’s called Workers’ Day.  And in other countries, despite no formal name, it’s a day to recognize and appreciate the contribution that labor makes (Canada, India, Portugal, and more).

Today is more than the first of May.  It’s May Day – full of a variety of observances and meaning.  For me – decades later – a part of me wants to make pretty construction paper cones and fill them with flowers, although I know that in my neighborhood, no one is home during the day to appreciate the gesture.  But still. . . I can’t help but hope they’ll be flowers on my doorstep some time during the day.

Do you celebrate May Day? What are your traditions?

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Mary Jo Manzanares is a traveler, travel blogger, and podcaster. In addition to her blog, Traveling with MJ, she hosts the Where Else to Go podcast, and is the founder and the editor-in-chief of The Traveler’s Way, an online travel magazine. Her travel ethos is value luxury - luxury for real people - and her goal is to help travelers know when to splurge and when to save. Mary Jo has been a speaker at various industry events around the world. When she’s not traveling, Mary Jo likes lingering over a cup of coffee, wandering in a museum, sipping wine at a cafe, and sharing it all with friends and readers. Her most recent travels were to Stockholm, a Baltic cruise, and Universal Orlando Resort.

8 Responses to “May Day: How Do You Celebrate?”

  1. May 1, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    I grew up with the tradition of leaving flowers at the door in the morning as a child or giving my mother flowers during the day . However, I stopped it when I left flowers on doors as an adult and friends freaked out about possible stalkers or crazy people. I guess it wasn’t as common a tradition in some communities.

    Ever since then I’ve wondered if the tradition was more of a throwback to a celebration from a time before my family immigrated to the US. Since I have both German ancestry and Scandinavian… I guess it’s possible, but I’ve had no confirmation. Where did you learn about this, if I may ask?

    Thanks for the great blog on this topic, it brought back some old favorite memories of family.

    Tracey

    • May 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

      @Tracey Rodell,

      I don’t think we worried about stalkers then. Of course, it was a small town and we knew everyone. My grandmother came from Serbo-Croatian roots, but I don’t know if that’s where she got the idea. It was just something we always did.

  2. May 1, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    I remember making those cone baskets and leaving them on the door knob. Was fun to see the look of surprise. But now I can’t pick the flowers in Grand Canyon NP.

    • May 1, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

      @Gaelyn,

      And there probably aren’t a whole lot of doorsteps either?

  3. May 3, 2012 at 9:16 pm #

    Love the idea of leaving flowers on neighbors’ doorsteps. Definitely not enough random acts of kindness these days! I don’t have any May Day traditions (yet), but I spent my May Day in San Francisco — part of it in cab with one of the most insane San Francisco cabbies (we’re talking NYC standards) I’ve yet to encounter. Maybe that’ll be my newfound tradition: cabbie survival! 😉

    • May 4, 2012 at 5:22 am #

      I think I’m going to find some other random acts of kindness and implement the on a more regular basis. We don’t need to wait for May Day.

  4. May 3, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

    I have to admit that I’ve never celebrated May Day. I appreciate the cultural knowledge because I don’t know much about it. It’s interesting to see how other places around the world celebrate. If I had to pick one of the celebrations, I would have to choose Germany.

    • May 4, 2012 at 5:21 am #

      I thought – and actually still think – it was a wonderfully fun thing to do as a child. But I acknowledge it was a simpler world then, and a very small town. Maybe it just doesn’t translate to today’s lifestyle. But I sort of wish it did.

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