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  • Writer's pictureAbby Brenker

The History of May Day, Walpurgis Night, Beltane and Horror

Updated: Apr 26

Since ancient times, May 1st has marked the commencement of Summer across many cultures. It’s a festival honoring the transition from colder weather to warmer. The days will get brighter, longer, the sun will return, crops will grow again. Over centuries and across cultures, this date has hosted many different festivals and holidays, from Walpurgis Night to Beltane and May Day. Let's talk about these rituals and the horror films that they inspired.

One lesser known May 1st holiday is Walpurgisnacht or Walpurgis Night is traditionally celebrated on the evening of April 30th and the day of May 1st in Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Germany and Latvia. The festival takes its name from Saint Walburga. Saint Walburga was born in what is now Devon, England in 710 AD. In Germany she founded a double monastery. Meaning a monastery that holds separate communities for Nuns and Monks. She was the daughter of St. Richard, a Saxon prince. She traveled to Wurrtenberg, Germany with her brothers and became a nun, living in the convent there that her brother had founded. And also notably converted the locals of the region to Christianity. 

According to legend, she died on February 25th 779. She was made a saint on May 1st of the same year. The feast also celebrates the movement of her relics in 870 AD to Eichstätt. It was claimed that while her relics were moved, it created a trail of miracles. Saint Walpurga was honored in Germany and known for combating witchcraft, whooping cough, pests and rabies. Her ability to scare off the Witches is important, because it was believed that witches ran rampant on this night. 

While Walpurgis Night skews dark, a casting out of evil, May Day skews light, a blessing for the crops and growth of spring. One of the classic traditions of May Day, the Maypole is a long wooden pole with various decorations, including garlands or painted designs, mostly used in Germanic pagan festivals. Sometimes the Maypole comes with a Maypole dance. The exact origins of the Maypole and its related activities isn’t precisely known. Some experts think that the Maypole dance specifically may have started as a fertility ritual.

Other activities include picking wildflowers and, as seen in Midsomer (2019), crowning a May Queen. Spring celebrations date back to the Roman Republic (around 509 BCE), with festivals that honored Flora, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. Those traditions were adopted by Pagan tribes across Ireland and Scandinavia.

Beltane is a Gaelic May Day festival, dating back to ancient times across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Beltane is a regional example of a May Day festival, which spans Europe. Historically, it’s tied to the beginning of Summer and a celebration of light and the shift towards abundance and growth.

Beltane, or bright fire, involves many rituals tied to fire, meant to protect the season of growth, cattle and livestock and the people. As this festival evolved over time and throughout regions, evidence has suggested that massive bonfires were present. Additional evidence suggests that animal sacrifices were part of this festival. In some regions, Beltane included the decoration of a May Bush with flowers and ribbons. Of course feasting was also involved, along with visiting holly wells.

A man and woman dance around a may pole

Different versions of this celebration of Summer span Germany, Bulgaria, England, Estonia, on and on. But the general idea is a celebration of the pastoral season and the shift from Winter to Summer.

May Day doesn’t have a ton of horror films to its name, but it has some great ones. And you can see why there would be a tie between any pagan festival and horror, especially when you set those traditions in a modern world. Perhaps the most iconic May Day horror film is The Wicker Man from 1973. This British folk horror masterpiece has become a cult classic. It tells the story of a detective who travels to a small Scottish Island to investigate a missing child case, only to encounter the strange rituals of those who live there. Campy and bizarre in its own way. It was directed by Robin Hardy, stars Christopher Lee and is based on the novel by David Pinner called Ritual. It has very positive scores on Rotten Tomatoes. There is also a 2006 remake starring Nicholas Cage.

a historic may day celebration

Modern horror lovers are very familiar with Ari Astor’s Midsommer. Which despite its purely fiction lens, does represent some traditions associated with May Day historically. For example, a may pole, may queen, may day dance.

There is also a film from 2011 called The Wicker Tree, which references The Wicker Man. It was written and directed by Robin Hardy, who directed the original Wicker Man from 1973.

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched is an excellent documentary about the history of folk horror in film, which I highly suggest.

A bonus film is The Woods, which someone on Twitter suggested to me. It’s from 2006 and stars Bruce Campbell and Patricia Clarkson. It doesn't seem squarely May Day related, but if you’ve seen all the others it calls upon pagan themes.

May Day was adopted as International Workers Day, it’s very similar to Labor Day. In 1886, in Chicago, labor activists started a multi-day strike that led to violence when police attacked protests and eventually 8 men were arrested for conspiracy to murder. After the dust settled, International Workers Day was formed.

A painting of a may day dance

Thanks to April Brenker for research help.


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