May Day Events: Maypoles, Morris Men and Marches

May Day is a holiday for many people around the world. Although it has many different names including International Workers’ Day and Labour Day.

The roots of Labour Day came from Australia’s fight for a workers holiday back in 1856, and after a Stonemason’s victory, 22nd April became the Eight-Hour Day, a public holiday – thanks Australia!

Not surprisingly, everyone else around the world rather liked the idea of a day off too, although 80 countries settled on 1st May or the nearest Monday to this date to commemorate the labour movement and create a public holiday.

The USA decided to distance itself from May Day, which was adopted by its former rival the Soviet Union, and the US celebrates Labour Day in September instead.

Its historical ties to labour movements make it a popular date for protests and organised marches but it was also traditionally a day of rites and celebrations. So, while some spend their holidays rioting in the street, others prefer a shimmy round the Maypole. Check out May Day events around the world


A morris dance usually left us kids in a state of giggles watching old men hop about and clatter their wooden batons together all to the efeminate jangle of bells tied to their legs. The origins of this rather potty Engligh folk dance are heavily disputed – meaning no one REALLY knows. But there is no mention of morris dancing before the 15th century.

Aside from morris dancing there is also the crowing of the May Day Queen and lots of running around the Maypole. Many such celebrations are tied up in agricultural feasts. Similarly to Plough Sunday, Harvest Festival, May Day heralded the end of seeding so many workers were given the day off and the towns and villages would celebrate springtime fertility.

In Oxford, after a night of revelry, people head to the Magdalen Tower on May Morning at 6am to hear the church choristers sing traditional madrigals.

In Hastings and Bristol the Jack in the Green Festival has been revived and is now a major event with flamboyant costumes and a procession. Hastings is also the finishing point for the Mayday Run, a motorbike run from London to Hastings with thousands of participants.

In Padstow, Penzance and St. Ives in Cornwall, the Obby-Oss is one of the oldest fertility rites in the UK. At midnight on the 1st May, two osses, hobby horses, dance through the streets accompanied by locals. They were a frightening mask and structured cape under which they try to catch young maidens. The event culminates with dancing round the Maypole, welcoming the start of summer.

Wanna go? See our top hostels in Penzance and St. Ives


The Beltane Fire Festival in Edinburgh is held on May Day eve. The Gaelic festival of Beltane inspired a group in 1988 and since then the event has grown with performers, over 300 voluntary collaborators and selling over 11,000 tickets. The procession begins at the Acropolis with a ritualistic drama drawing on mythology of acient cultures.

The Blue Men lead the pack followed by the Green Man. Next they create fire using traditional methods called Neid Fire. Other characters in the performance include White Warrior Womenm Torchbearers and the May Queen. The end is particularly spectacular with the lighting of the bonfire at a high point overlooking the city of Edinburgh.

Want to see some fire? Find accommodation with our cheap hotels in Edinburgh.


It was Kind Charles IX who kicked of things in France. When he received a lily of the valley as a luck charm on 1st May, he vowed to give the flower to ladies of the court every year. The custom continues today and lady receiving the flower should offer a kiss in return.


Walpurgisnacht is held the night before May Day with bonfires, maypoles and generally partying for the hooligans. Their motto: Tanz in den Mai! Meaning, dance into May. In the Rhineland a tradition was for an admirer to cover a tree in streamers and deliver it to a girl’s doorstep the night before. This chap doesn’t look like he is going about it in a particularly legal way though…!


Golden weeks in China are national 7-Day holidays. Until 2007 there were three golden weeks, one of which spanned 1st May but this holiday has now been reduced to a single Labour Day holiday.

May Day Events: Protests

But, while public holiday has, so far, conjured up images of lazy days in the garden and pottering about the home, village fetes and dancing around the bonfire in pagan ritual, May Day has a darker side. The event harks back to the workers’ fight for change. May Day fans the fire of liberty, political unrest and our right to protest. On May Day, things can turn ugly…

For example,  thousands took to the street in Athens on 1st May 2010 to protest against forthcoming Greek austerity measures. Petrol bombs released by violent rioters caused serious damage and the police battled to extinguish the flames.

May Day holiday ideas

For fun in the UK, see the top 10 cheap weekend breaks from London, or check out more ideas for cheap city breaks with this visit England on a budget guide. If you’re off to the capital, see the beginner’s budget guide to London.

Our student summer party destinations guide gives the lowdown on beautiful places to go in Europe with great nightlife, or you could choose to get some peace and quiet on some secret islands in Europe.

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Thanks to beanmunster morris, shimgray, Shane Global Language Centres, Purely Penzance, monkeypuzzle, keepwaddling1, Randy OHC, PresleyJesus, PIAZZA del POPOLO, jvoves

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