Musical Traditions of May Day

Happy May Day! On the first of May, many countries in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate the ancient festival rejoicing in the return of spring. It is believed that the celebrations originated in agricultural rituals intended to ensure healthy crops, held by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. In Gaelic traditions, the holiday is known as Beltaine (or Beltane). Today, many customs mark this ancient festival including gathering of wildflowers, singing songs, and dancing around a Maypole.

Probably one of the most well-known symbols and traditions of May Day is dancing around the Maypole. This tradition, particularly popular in Europe, involves members of a community coming together to dance around a wooden Maypole, holding colorful ribbons that become intertwined. The dancers the change direction and repeat the steps in reverse, causing the ribbons to unwind. Some say this is to symbolize the lengthening of the days as summer begins.

The music played for dancers during May Day celebrations is usually instrumental folk music of the region. However, there are many songs with lyrics specifically about May Day and celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Check out this great resource all about May Day songs for examples, history, and ideas of songs to perform with your ensemble!

May Day has also become a day celebrated around the world as International Workers Day. It too has a rich musical tradition and history of communities coming together.


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About the Author

Kate Huffman

Kate first discovered the power of intercultural communication and exchange through music on a month-long trip to China and Japan with her college wind ensemble. She's been hooked on traveling ever since and has performed with different groups in cities such Beijing, London, and Kyoto to name a few! Kate is a clarinet player and a passionate arts advocate with degrees in music, arts administration, and cultural policy. Kate is the Marketing and Communications Manager at Encore Tours.

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