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Early May Bank Holiday in the United Kingdom

The first Monday of May is a bank holiday in the United Kingdom. It is called May Day in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is known as the Early May Bank Holiday in Scotland. It probably originated as a Roman festival honoring the beginning of the summer season (in the northern hemisphere). In more recent times, it has been as a day to campaign for and celebrate workers' rights.

Is Early May Bank Holiday a Public Holiday?

Early May Bank Holiday is a public holiday. It is a day off for the general population, and schools and most businesses are closed.

Early May Bank Holiday
Maypole dancing is a popular tradition on the Early May Bank Holiday.
Maypole dancing is a popular tradition on the Early May Bank Holiday.
©iStockphoto.com/Thomas Sarradet

What Do People Do?

In many places, the first day or the first Monday in May is celebrated as the start of the summer season. Events are held to celebrate the end of the winter season and the fertility and hope of the approaching summer. A particularly widespread tradition is that of maypole dancing. Children, particularly girls, dance around a tall pole, from which ribbons are suspended. The aim of the dance is to create a decorative pattern on the pole with the ribbons. Many schools, particularly in rural areas, organize displays of maypole dancing.

Another traditional form of dancing, Morris dancing, is also associated with the beginning of May. This type of dancing is nearly always carried out exclusively by men who dress in white with bells on various parts of their costumes and carry scarves and long wooden sticks. The dancing is accompanied by loud accordion music. Groups of Morris dancers often hold displays on the early May bank holiday.

Other traditions include making floral garlands, decorating houses with flowers and leaves and crowning a May queen as a living image of the Roman goddess Flora. In some areas, girls go out very early to wash their faces in the morning dew. This is supposed to make them very beautiful in the coming year. In Rochester, there is a festival of chimney sweeps. Traditionally, May 1 was the only day in the year that they did not have to work. In Derbyshire, villagers decorate, or dress, the wells with flowers.

May 1 or the first Monday in May is also a day for large marches, particularly London, to celebrate and demand rights for workers. Many aspects of these marches are organized by the trade unions. Some people travel very large distances to join in the marches. In some years, the marches have ended violently, but in recent times they have remained peaceful.

Public Life

The first Monday in May is a bank holiday and many people have a day off work. Many organizations, businesses and schools are closed, while stores may be open or closed, according to local custom. Public transport systems often run to a holiday timetable.

Background

Many types of May Day celebrations date back to fertility rituals performed in pagan times. This is particularly true of events to celebrate Flora, a Roman goddess. Through the ages, there have been some attempts to outlaw this type of celebration, because it was seen as unchristian. However, the celebrations have been remarkably robust.

In Scotland, the Early May Bank holiday has been observed on the first Monday in May since 1871, but was only introduced in the rest of the United Kingdom in 1978. In 1995 and only in that year, this bank holiday was moved to the second Monday in May (May 8) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the allies accepting the surrender of the armed forces of Nazi Germany. This was the formal end of World War II and is known as VE Day.

Early May Bank Holiday Observances

YearWeekdayDateNameHoliday TypeArea
2010MonMay 3Early May Bank HolidayBank holiday 
2011MonMay 2Early May Bank HolidayBank holiday 
2012MonMay 7Early May Bank HolidayBank holiday 
2013MonMay 6Early May Bank HolidayBank holiday 
2014MonMay 5Early May Bank HolidayBank holiday 
2015MonMay 4Early May Bank HolidayBank holiday 
2016MonMay 2Early May Bank HolidayBank holiday 
2017MonMay 1Early May Bank HolidayBank holiday 
2018MonMay 7Early May Bank HolidayBank holiday 
2019MonMay 6Early May Bank HolidayBank holiday 
2020MonMay 4Early May Bank HolidayBank holiday 

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