May 1st is an ancient Northern Hemisphere festival, now known as ‘May Day’, which traditionally marked the return of summer. It is believed that the celebrations originated in agricultural rituals intended to ensure fertility for crops, held by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Later developments included the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night. Today, many customs still mark this ancient festival, including the gathering of wildflowers and the setting up of a decorated May tree or Maypole, around which people dance.
‘May Day Central Park’ (1901) by Maurice Prendergast. (Public Domain)
The Festival of Flora: May Day for the Roman Crowd
The Romans marked the occasion over two millennia ago with the Floralia, or Festival of Flora, a five-day ceremony to honor the Roman goddess of flowers. Flora was regarded as one of the most ancient goddesses of Roman religion, and was one of 15 deities to have her own state-supported high priest, the flamen Florialis. A goddess of flowers, vegetation, and fertility, she received sacrifices in the sacred grove of the Arval Brothers, an archaic priesthood.