Since ancient times the May season has been at time of celebration and merriment. The appearance of flowers after a cold winter season signals the promise of warm summer days to come. Many of the modern celebrations of May are rooted in ancient pagan traditions that honored the earth and the forces that renewed life. In many pre-Christian European religions, Nature was perceived as a goddess and from this ancient concept evolved the modern "Mother Nature" personifications.
May Day celebrations are a time to acknowledge the return of growth and the end of decline within the cycle of life. The rites of May are rooted in ancient fertility festivals that can be traced back to the Great Mother festivals of the Hellenistic period of Greco-Roman religion. The Romans inherited the celebration of May from earlier Latin tribes such as the Sabines. The ancient Roman festival of Floralia is one of the celebrations of this nature. This festival culminated on May 1 with offerings of flowers and garlands to the Roman goddesses Flora and Maia, for whom the month of May is named. Wreaths mounted on a pole, which was adorned with a flowered garland, were carried in street processions in honor of the goddess Maia.
With the expansion of the Roman Empire into Gaul and the British Isles, the festivals of May were introduced into Celtic religion. Various aspects of May celebrations such as the blessing of holy wells are traceable to the ancient Roman festival of Fontilalia, which focused upon offerings to spirits that revived wells and streets. Even the Maypole itself is derived from archaic Roman religion. In the "Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore" by W.C. Hazlitt, the author states that in ancient Briton it was the custom to erect Maypoles adorned with flowers in honor of the Roman goddess Flora.
The Maypole is traditionally a tall pole garlanded with greenery or flowers and often hung with ribbons that are woven into complex patterns by a group of dancers. Such performances are the echoes of ancient dances around a living tree in spring rites designed to ensure fertility. Tradition varies as to the type of wood used for the maypole. In some accounts the traditional wood is ash or birch, and in others it is cypress or elm. The Maypole concept can be traced to a figure known as a herms (or hermai) that was placed at the crossroads throughout the Roman Empire.
In 1724 the noted occultist Dr. William Stuckely, in his work titled the Itinerarium, describes a Maypole near Horn Castle, Lincolnshire, that reportedly stood on the site of a former Roman herms (a wood or stone carving of the upper torso of a body emerging from a pillar). The author records that boys "annually keep up the festival of the Floralia on May Day," and carried white willow wands covered with cowslips. Stuckely goes on to say that these wands are derived from the thyrsus wands once carried in the ancient Roman Bacchanal rites.
May festivals commonly incorporate elements of pre-Christian worship related to agricultural themes. In ancient times a young male was chosen to symbolize the spirit of the plant kingdom. Known by such names as Jack-in-the-Green, Green George, and the Green Man, he walked in a procession through the village symbolizing his return as spring moves toward summer. Typically a pretty young woman bearing the title, "Queen of the May" led the procession. She was accompanied by a young man selected as the May King, typically symbolized by Jack-in-the-Green. The woman and man, also known as the May Bride and Bridegroom, carried flowers and other symbols of fertility related to agriculture.
The connection of the tree to May celebrations is quite ancient and is rooted in archaic tree worship throughout Europe. The belief that the gods dwelled within trees was widespread. Later this tenet diminished into a belief that the spirit of vegetation resided in certain types of trees, such as the oak, ash, and hawthorn. In many parts of Europe young people would gather branches and carry them back to their villages on May 1 morning, suspending them in the village square from a tall pole. Bringing newly budding branches into the village was believed to renew life for everyone. Dances were performed around this "Maypole" to ensure that everyone was connected or woven into the renewing forces of Nature.