Just last week I was coming to the end of an Austria, Germany and Switzerland tour and was in the Black Forest up to my nose in the local cherry cake when I realised it will soon be May 1st. When I started doing these weekly pieces a couple of years back I read some of the previous posts. There was a lot of great stuff there and, naturally, I felt comfortable that I could borrow freely from them for ideas. The wonderful Greg Watts did a posting on Bavarian Maypoles and I use the details in my commentaries now. Greg is piecing together an interview for me (in fairness, child number two arrived recently so he has been busy) and I thought I would put together something on May Day traditions in Europe that are happening today.
Spring festivals have their roots in pagan times, with that rather obvious transition from winter towards summer and the beginning of the growing season. People would celebrate the longer days with eating, drinking and festivities and in the Middle Ages the symbol of the maypole was developed. Today, for many European countries May Day is seen as the workers’ holiday and, historically, one that would feature processions and intriguing local customs. In England it is a chance for Morris Dancers to perform unabashed on village greens and within hopping distance of any small pub. In northern and Eastern Europe the celebration of Walpurgisnacht (Walpurga’s night) still occurs. In some countries (Germany, Czech Republic, Sweden) people associate the night with witches and will dress like them and the burning of bonfires is a common theme. It all started due to the association with (to me anyway) a local girl called St Walpurga who made her way to these areas over 1000 years ago and became forever entwined with the May celebration due to the date of her canonization.
Other celebrations will take place across the globe as more than 80 countries recognize May 1st (or the first Monday in May) as a holiday. The more political celebration of International Workers Day is tied up with the traditional May Day traditions and it is often a time that you might see marches through towns and cities by workers, not in protest of anything but merely as a demonstration of their status. Many European celebrations were banned by fascist dictatorships in the 20th century so there has been a, relatively, recent return to the annual festivals and these are seen as an opportunity to celebrate the end of fascist rule.
The transition through Spring is also an important time for those of us who follow that splendid spectacle which is cricket. I have tried to explain this game many times to groups over the years, with differing levels of success. Now I just take a bat and a ball along and get them to play, it is the only way to learn, even if I must suffer the indignity of being bowled out by a Californian on the green of Circus Maximus in Rome (freakish delivery, hit a rut in the ground etc, etc). May 1st 1751 is also the date of the first game of cricket to be played in the United States, so there is history across the Atlantic. And before you get too confused, it’s cricket (like the insect) not the Croquet Association.
What is your favorite holiday in May?
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(Editor’s note: Paul Mattesini’s posts appear Tuesdays on Following the Equator. If you have a travel question for our resident expert tour director, or an idea for a blog post topic, you can email Paul here, and he will answer readers’ questions in future posts.)