As Europe became Christianized the pagan holidays lost their religious character and either changed into popular secular celebrations, as with May Day, or were replaced by new Christian holidays as with Christmas, Easter, and All Saint's Day. In the start of the twenty-first century, many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival again.
Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a Maypole. Much of this tradition derive from the pagan Anglo-Saxon customs held during "Þrimilci-mōnaþ" (the Old English name for the month of May meaning Month of Three Milkings).
May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. With Christianity came agricultural feasts such as Plough Sunday (the first Sunday in January), Rogationtide, Harvest Festival and May Day. It is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. Since May 1st is the Feast of St Philip & St James, they became the patron saints of workers. Seeding has been completed by this date and it was convenient to give farm labourers a day off. Perhaps the most significant of the traditions is the Maypole, around which traditional dancers circle with ribbons.
The May Day Bank Holiday was traditionally the only one to affect the state school calendar, although new arrangements in some areas to even out the length of school terms mean that the Good Friday and Easter Monday Bank Holidays, which vary from year to year, may also fall during term time.
In Oxford, it is traditional for revellers to gather below Magdalen College tower to listen to the college's choir for what is called May Morning. It is then thought to be traditional for some students to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell. However this has actually only been fashionable since the 1970s. In recent years the bridge has been closed on 1 May to prevent people from jumping, as the water under the bridge is only deep and jumping from the bridge has resulted in serious injury in the past yet there are still students who insist on climb the barriers and leaping into the water, causing injury.
Hastings fills up with tourists and bikes by about 11 AM, and the A21 from Kent to East Sussex is the road the bikers travel. As a result, this road should be avoided if traveling in a car.
A good example of more traditional May Day festivities is still witnessed in Whitstable, Kent where the Jack in the Green festival was revived in 1976 and continues to lead an annual procession of morris dancers through the town on the May Bank Holiday. A separate revival occurred in Hastings in 1983 and has become a major event in the town calendar. Padstow also holds its annual 'Obby 'Oss festival. A traditional Sweeps Festival is performed over the May bank holiday in Rochester, Kent where the Jack In the Green is woken at dawn on the 1st of May by Morris dancers.
Kingsand, Cawsand and Millbrook in Cornwall celebrate Black Prince Day on the May Day bank holiday. A model of the ship The Black Prince is covered in flowers and is taken in procession from the Quay at Millbrook to the beach at Cawsand where it is cast adrift. The houses in the villages are decorated with flowers and people traditionally wear red and white clothes. There are further celebrations in Cawsand Square with Morris dancing and May pole dancing.
St Andrews has a similar student tradition — some of the students gather on the beach late on April 30 and run into the North Sea at sunrise on the 1st, occasionally naked. This is accompanied by torchlit processions and much elated celebration.
Both Edinburgh and Glasgow organize Mayday festivals and rallies. In Edinburgh, the Beltane Fire Festival is held on the evening of May eve and into the early hours of May Day on the city's Calton Hill.
On May 1st, 1561, French King Charles IX of France received a lily of the valley as a lucky charm. He decided to offer a lily of the valley each year to the ladies of the court. At the beginning of the 20th century, it became custom on the 1st of May, to give a sprig of lily of the valley, a symbol of springtime. The government permits individuals and workers' organisations to sell them free of taxation. It is also traditional for the lady receiving the spray of lily of valley to give a kiss in return.
In rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of Pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the wrapping of maypoles, and young people use this opportunity to party, while the day itself is used by many families to get some fresh air. Motto: "Tanz in den Mai!" ("Dance into May!"). In the Rhineland, a region in the western part of Germany, May 1 is also celebrated by the delivery of a tree covered in streamers to the house of a girl the night before. The tree is typically from a love interest, though a tree wrapped only in white streamers is a sign of dislike. On leap years, it is the responsibility of the females to place the maypole, though the males are still allowed and encouraged to do so.
May Day was also celebrated by some early European settlers of the American continent. In some parts of the United States, May Baskets are made. These baskets are small and usually filled with flowers or treats and left at someone's doorstep. The basket giver would ring the bell and run away. The person receiving the basket would try to catch the fleeing giver. If they caught the person, a kiss was to be exchanged.
Modern May Day ceremonies in the U.S. vary greatly from region to region and many unite both the holiday's "Green Root" (pagan) and "Red Root" (labor) traditions. Among the largest is the May Day Parade and Pageant created by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, an event that has happened every year since 1974 in Minneapolis and now attracts some 35,000 people.
May Day can refer to various labour celebrations conducted on May 1 that commemorate the fight for the eight hour day. May Day in this regard is called International Workers' Day, or Labour Day. The idea for a "workers holiday" began in Australia in 1856. With the idea having spread around the world, the choice of May 1st became a commemoration by the Second International for the people involved in the 1886 Haymarket affair.
The Haymarket affair occurred during the course of a three-day general strike in Chicago, Illinois that involved common laborers, artisans, merchants, and immigrants. Following an incident in which police opened fire and killed four strikers at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co. plant, a rally was called for the following day at Haymarket Square. The event remained peaceful, yet towards the end of the rally, as police moved in to disperse the event, an unknown assailant threw a bomb into the crowd of police. The bomb and resulting police riot left at least a dozen people dead, including seven policemen. A sensational show trial ensued in which eight defendants were openly tried for their political beliefs, and not necessarily for any involvement in the bombing. The trial lead to the eventual public hanging of four anarchists. The Haymarket incident was a source of outrage from people around the globe. In the following years, memory of the "Haymarket martyrs" was remembered with various May Day job actions and demonstrations.
As such, May Day has become an international celebration of the social and economic achievements of the labour movement. Although May Day received its inspiration from the United States, the U.S. Congress designated May 1 as Loyalty Day in 1958 due to the day's appropriation by the Soviet Union. Alternatively Labor Day traditionally occurs sometime in September in the United States. People often use May Day as a day for political protest, such as the million people who demonstrated against far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, or as a day for protest against government actions, such as pro-immigrant rallies across the United States.
In 1984, Ronald Reagan restated that, in the United States, May first would be known as "Law Day, ... a celebration of our 200-year-old partnership between law and liberty.