This story originally published in April 2014. Events have been updated for 2018.
So, is your maypole just about ready?
No? Perhaps you’ve been too busy preparing your May Day baskets.
What? Your baskets aren’t ready, either?
Well, you’d best get busy, because May Day is right around the corner.
The first day of May is probably just an ordinary day for you and your family. But for centuries, many cultures have celebrated May Day as the first day of summer, even though May 1 comes near the start of spring. It’s a time for saying goodbye to the long, cold winter and welcoming warmer weather by gathering flowers, singing, dancing and, well, flirting.
Early celebrations such as Beltane in ancient Ireland and Scotland and the festival of Floralia in Rome were intended to improve crop growth and to help livestock produce more offspring. Later they became occasions for people to get together and have fun in the sun.
May Day traditions include the crowning of a May queen (and sometimes a king) to oversee the day’s activities. Children and grown-ups might fill May baskets with candy or flowers and secretly leave them on neighbors’ porches. People were told that if they went outside early on May 1 and washed their face with dew, their skin would be more beautiful.
Probably the best-known May Day activity is the maypole dance. In olden days, people would dance around a pole cut from a birch tree, holding the end of a ribbon or streamer in their hand. The other end of the ribbon was attached to the top of the pole, and dancers moving in patterns around the pole wove the ribbons into colorful designs. That festivity continues in some places in Europe and the United States, though the pole usually comes from not from a live tree but from the hardware store.
In the late 1800s, workers in different parts of the world were fighting for the right to work no more than eight hours a day. At the time, it was common for them to have to work 11 hours or more each day. They chose May 1 as a time to protest in favor of a shorter workday.
Today, May Day is also known as International Workers’ Day, and it is marked in many countries as a day to honor workers’ rights.
What: May Revels
Where: During Flower Mart, on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral, Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues Northwest
When: May 5 at 4:15 p.m., with maypole dances, songs and the crowning of a May queen. Flower Mart is May 4-5, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (An earlier version of this story incorrectly had the Revels’ performance on May 4.)
How much: Free.