May Day is an often forgotten holiday, but it’s a wonderful tradition to celebrate with kids. The origins of this holiday go back to pre-Christian times. Called Beltane by the Druids of the British Isles, this celebration traditionally marked the beginning of summer. On this day, Druids lit a new fire to lend energy to the sun. When the Romans came to Britain, they brought with them Flora, their goddess of flowers, whose festival was held in early May. This is when flowers began to be associated with May Day.
Dancing around the Maypole is a tradition still practiced in many places today. Communities or neighborhoods put up a tall pole with colorful ribbons attached — typically in a central place, such as the village square. Children dressed in colorful costumes each grab a ribbon and dance around the Maypole, weaving the ribbon into an intricate pattern. The correct weaving of the ribbons was believed to bring nature back into order after the long, dark days of winter.
Most May Day traditions today stem from these rituals. The first of May is a great time to celebrate the coming of summer, new beginnings and the beauty of nature. Here are four ideas to mark this fun and simple holiday at home with kids.
1. Bringing in the green
In Medieval times, villagers in England ventured into the forest and brought back greenery and flowers. They called this “bringing in the green.” You can replicate this custom in honor of May Day by decorating your home with fresh flowers and other natural plants. Take the kids on a walk to collect leaves, pine or fir cones, flowers or whatever else you find. Then display your collection in a pretty bowl.
2. May Day flower bouquets
An old May Day custom is to deliver a small basket or cone of flowers to your neighbors, hanging the bouquets on your neighbors’ door knobs. This is a sweet tradition to brighten your friends’ or neighbors’ day. It’s easy to make a cone basket with your kids.
- craft paper or cardstock
- tape or stapler
- hole punch
- sandwich bag
- paper towel
- rubber band
Instructions: Cut paper or cardstock into a square (8 x 8 inches works well), and then let the kids decorate the squares with stickers or drawings if you wish. Next, roll the paper into a cone shape and tape or staple the edges to hold it in place. It’s okay if the bottom point isn’t completely closed. Use a hole punch to punch two holes, opposite each other, about one inch from the top rim of the cone. Thread a piece of ribbon through one hole and tie it, then repeat on the other side to create a bucket-like handle for your cone basket.
When you are ready to fill the cone, wrap the cut ends of fresh flowers or greens with a dampened paper towel and cover with a plastic sandwich bag, securing with a rubber band. On the morning of May 1, hang your creation from a neighbor’s doorknob, ring the bell and run! May Day flowers are traditionally an anonymous offering.
Dancing around the Maypole is one of the more recognizable icons of May Day celebrations. Make your own backyard Maypole and dance around it with your kids.
- A piece of PVC pipe or a closet pole (6–10 feet in length works great) or a broom handle if that’s what you have.
- Duct tape
- Ribbon, twine or crepe-paper streamers (though note that streamers tear so easily this might be frustrating for kids), as colorful as you can find.
- A small bunch of fresh or artificial flowers for the top of your pole
- Material to decorate the pole itself, if you wish, such as burlap, ribbon or streamers.
First, decorate the pole itself, if you wish. Wrap it in burlap for a natural, textured look, or make it colorful by winding crepe-paper streamers around the pole, securing with tape. (Leave the bottom foot of the pole undecorated so you can “plant” it in the ground.)
Prep your ribbons, streamers or string by cutting into pieces about twice as long as your pole. At least one ribbon per child is great. Attach your ribbons to the top of the pole with duct tape. You can decorate the top of the pole with some flowers if you wish. “Plant” your Maypole directly into the ground if you can, or use a patio umbrella stand, some cinder blocks on their sides or get creative.
Now, for the fun part, the Maypole dance! Put on some folk music and have your kids each grab a ribbon; let them walk or dance in a wide circle around the pole until all of the ribbon is wrapped around it. They can then turn the other direction and reverse the process, unwinding the ribbons. Once the kids get the hang of it, do it again! Try changing the dance by giving different commands for going around the Maypole, such as skipping, hopping or walking backwards.
4. May Day bonfire
The Druids celebrated May 1 with a bonfire. End your May Day celebration with a fire in the fireplace or in a backyard firepit. If you don’t have either, you can simply light a candle. Then, since May Day is about new beginnings, have each family member share one new thing they would like to do during the remaining days of spring and the summer to come.
Editor's note: This article was first published a few years ago and has been updated for May Day 2023.