A Merrie May: The Role of Costume in Spring Festivals

Over many centuries, people living in the northerly reaches of the Northern hemisphere have celebrated the coming of Spring. No one can be sure when the seasonal tradition of “May Day” began, because it was likely well before physical means of recording stories. There are many valid oral history accounts of spring celebrations. What has become apparent in oral accounts of May Day traditions is how diverse they have become across huge areas of land, culture, climate and physical landscape. Accounts have been recorded in from Ireland to Russia, and as far south as France, and north as Scandinavia. There are thousands of expressions of the celebration of Spring through May Day, each simultaneously similar and unique.

In general, May Day celebrations occur in early May. Most include music, eating, and playing games or dancing in costume – and often around a Maypole. In recent times, in colonial British Columbia, May Day is celebrated at the end of May, and has been blended with British Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) birthday on May 24. The community of White Rock celebrated the ancient spring festival of May Day for nearly 25 years (1923-1949), like many other towns in colonial British Columbia.

However for many, it is precisely the magical mystery of May Day’s “true” origins is also what provides its appeal and encourages creativity. We do know that this ritual it is ancient, and as you will see, the ability to participate in its timelessness doesn’t lose its appeal over time or through space.

This exhibition explores the use of costume and performance during May Day and how it shaped cultural identity in early White Rock. The exhibition also showcases contemporary spring festivals of May Day and Beltane in the Lower Mainland.

Additional Information


Jan 25, 2019 - May 21, 2019


Kate Petrusa


Photography by Electra Design and Bob McNevin.

Costume contributions from the New Westminster Museum and Archives and Brian Hayden.

Costume design by Norma Langton.

Video by Claire McCague.