'May Day in the Middle Ages
May Day is one of those holidays that seems medieval, even ancient; the customs of flowers and fertility rites definitely feel like they go back a long time (...)
The ancient world:
The Roman festival of Floralia took place for six days beginning the 28th of April, and this seems to be the origin of some of the things we associate with May Day began: wearing bright colours, drinking a lot, and a certain sexual permissiveness are mentioned by Ovid and Juvenal. This celebration was dedicated to Flora, the goddess of flowers, which was an idea that appealed to the Renaissance humanists when trying to recreate some good Classical festivals.
This coincided with the Gaelic festival of Beltaine. The word itself, in Q-Celtic languages, comes from a Proto-Celtic word for ‘bright fire’, which seems to have been the chief attraction. (The Welsh word, meanwhile, is Calen Mai, which comes directly from the Roman calendar and the Latin for the first of May.) It started the night before, as do all ancient Celtic festivals since they figured time in nights rather than days. The ninth-century Irish glossary Sanas Cormaic says the druids made the fires while casting ‘great incantations,’ and that they were supposed to ward off disease; people may also have danced ‘sunwise’ around them. There is, at least, archaeological evidence of large fires at quite a few places in Ireland. It seems cattle would be driven between two fires, which seems fitting for two reasons: that ancient Ireland counted wealth in cattle, and that Beltaine, like Samhain six months before, was a liminal border-day when the fairies, whose world overlaid the mortal one, were even closer then usual.
There seems to have also been an old Germanic festival that also involved bonfires, which was later merged with the feast of the 8th-century German saint Walpurga to become Walpurgisnacht. In the early modern era this was expanded even more as local anxiety over witches turned it into a “witches’ sabbat”, and by now has mostly been replaced by Easter fires.
Basically, early agrarian societies all liked the part of the year when enough plants started to grow that you got new food to eat, and you could let the cattle out of your house and send them off to grazing land.
The middle ages:
Along with the new food to eat and the cattle grazing, a useful thing about spring festivals was that if you were a villager, rather than a noble with a great hall, you couldn’t really have huge communal feasts during the winter. The only building in a village likely to be big enough was the church, and along with being hard to heat, people tended to shy away from using those for secular celebrations. When the weather started turning warmer, they could all meet outside on the village green (...)
By the middle ages, some of what had once been Floralia, Beltaine, and other early-spring festivals had been pulled into the liturgical calendar and applied to the Christian celebration of Whitsun, or Pentecost. This was one of three weeks of holiday for the medieval worker, and was marked by feasting, dancing, and parties. The Welsh tale of Geraint (and various other versions of the same story) opens with a description of Arthur’s Whitsun feasting, and all the churches necessary to fit everyone in the court so they can all hear Mass. It was also one of the three times of the year, along with Christmas and Easter, when vassals were given new clothes (...).
Various churchmen complained about the festivities from 1220 onward, but not-very-mysteriously stopped in the fifteenth century when someone worked out that if the church actually sponsored these things, they could keep an eye on everything and make some money at it. Like the Hocktide kidnapping game, the paris ale used local custom to bring in some money to the local church.
Bringing in the May:
So what exactly did this ‘bringing in the May’ business entail? In most places, people gathered flowers and branches to make garlands or wreaths. Chaucer mentions woodbine and hawthorn in the Knight’s Tale, while sycamore was more common in Cornwall and birch in Wales. The flowers were then awarded as prizes or given as gifts to friends and neighbours. Washing one’s face in the morning May Day dew was supposed to bring youth and radiance to the complexion.
The most enduring image of a May Day celebration is the Maypole, painted and beribboned and standing on the village reen. While the earliest recorded evidence of it is from a Welsh poem by Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd in the mid-fourteenth century describing a maypole in Llanidloes, it seems otherwise to be English, rather than Celtic, in origin and to have migrated to the marches from English settlers. A number of theories exist as to their original significance, some less likely and more outlandish than others, but no definitive explanation has presented itself. From the early 1400s there are records of a number of English villages paying for platforms and ribbons to display and decorate maypoles.
The crowning of a May Queen (or later more commonly a May King), seems to have really taken off in the early modern period, but there is evidence of it earlier. The Bishop of Worcester complained about a May beauty contest that sounds suspiciously like such a ceremony in 1240, and there are other, slightly less disapproving references in manuscripts in 1303 and 1306. After about 1450, summer kings seem to have been more common than summer queens, and there are only a few instances of there being one of each. (...)'
'Pentecost (...) took place 7 weeks after Easter to mark the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus’ disciples. It was also known as Whit Sunday and was important to the liturgical calendar.In the Middle Ages, cathedrals and great churches throughout Western Europe were fitted with a peculiar architectural feature known as a Holy Ghost hole; a small circular opening in the roof that symbolized the entrance of Holy Spirit into the midst of the assembled worshippers. At Pentecost, these Holy Ghost holes would be decorated with flowers, and sometimes a dove figure lowered through into the church while the story of the Pentecost was read. Holy Ghost holes can still be seen today in European churches such as Canterbury Cathedral.
Similarly, a large two dimensional dove figure would be, and in some places still are, cut out of wood, painted and decorated with flowers, to be lowered over the people, particularly during the singing of the sequence hymn, or Veni Creator Spiritus. In other places, particularly Sicily and the Italian peninsula, rose petals were and are thrown from the galleries over the congregation calling to mind the tongues of fire. In modern times, this practice has been revived, and interestingly adapted as well, to include the strewing of origami doves from above, or suspending them – sometimes by the hundreds – from the ceiling.
In some cases, red fans, or red handkerchiefs are distributed to the assembled worshippers to be waved during the procession, etc. Other congregations have incorporated the use of red balloons, signifying the "Church's Birthday" into their festivities. These may be carried by worshippers, used to decorate the sanctuary, or released all at once.'