If your idea of May Day is white dresses and flowers, you might be surprised by the uncut, unedited version of the holiday. A closer look takes you beyond bucolic Victorian imagery and reveals a history far more colorful than the ribbons on a maypole.

It's May, the lusty month of May,
That darling month when everyone throws self-control away.
It's time to do a wretched thing or two,
and try to make each precious day one you'll always rue.

Tra la, it's May, the lusty Month of May
That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray
Tra la, it's here, that shocking time of year,
when tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear.
--Lyrics from the musical "Camelot"

What is May Day?

Traditional May Day celebrations were pre-Christian agricultural festivals that marked the transition between winter and summer. May Day in Europe was especially influenced by the Roman festival Floralia, and the Celtic fire festival, Beltane.

The Romans honored Flora, the goddess of spring, with dancing and feasting for six days, and prostitutes adopted Flora as their patron goddess. The customs of this fertility festival spread into Europe, and May became notorious as a month of sexual freedom. Marriage bonds were temporarily suspended for the month, and on May Eve itself, folks would spend the night "a-maying" in the woods, ostensibly gathering materials for the maypole dance the next day.

On May Day, revelers would sing and dance, weaving ribbons or colored streamers into a pattern around the central maypole. This spring rite was important enough that in cities like London, maypoles were permanent fixtures, though in the smaller villages a tree would be taken from the woods for the celebration.

And then there were Puritans

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
--Rudyard Kipling

Sleepovers in the woods and frolicking around the phallic maypole did not sit well with the Puritans. While these activities were sacred rites to Pagans, promiscuous sex, from the Puritan point of view, was a sin, and the British Parliament banned popular May Day festivities in 1644. A Puritan tract reveals their outrage at the customs of the time:

"Men and women and children, old and young and go off, some to the woods and groves, some to the hills and mountains, where they spend the night in pastimes. In the morning they return bringing with them birch-boughs and trees to deck their assemblies withal. I've heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity, credibility and reputation. That forty, three score, or a hundred youths, going to the woods over night. They have scarcely the third part of them, returned home again undefiled."
--Philip Stubbes
"Anatomy of Abuses"

While some complained such Christians "took the fun out of sex," in fact the Puritans may have unwittingly added a new dimension of titillation to the celebration, which could now be enjoyed as forbidden pleasure. But by the nineteenth century, the Victorians had thoroughly sanitized the May Day rites, divorcing May Day from the celebration of fertility entirely, and reinventing it as a holiday for children, emphasizing its innocence.