May Day is
not found in the Church calendar, but it is an ancient festival, and was
observed for many centuries, if not exactly as a holy day, certainly as
a holiday, a time of rejoicing and gladness.
The name of
the fifth month is derived from a word signifying ‘to grow’, indicating
that May has always been considered in European latitudes as a time of
people of ancient Rome honoured Flora, the goddess of flowers and
springtime, with a festival called Florialia. A small statue
wreathed in garlands represented the goddess and a procession of singers
and dancers carried the statue past a sacred blossom-decked tree. Later,
festivals of this kind spread to other lands conquered by the Romans.
Song contains a poetic allusion to the season in beautiful words: ‘For,
lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the time of the
singing of birds is come, and the turtle is heard in our land.’ The
Romans had their floral games to greet the coming in of May, and in
England, for centuries, it was a time for holding high festival. Chaucer
informs us that it was customary for all, both high and low - even the
court itself - to go out on the first May morning at an early
hour ‘to fetch the flowers afresh.’
branches were also gathered. These were brought home at sunrise with
merry music on horn arid tabor. The hawthorn bloom soon gained the name
of May, and the journey to the woods to gather it was called going a-maying.
The history of the reign of Henry VIII records how the stately
Corporation of London went into Kent to gather May, and were met at
Shooter’ s Hill by Henry arid Katherine of Aragon, who came from
The festivals begun in
Italy reached their height in England during the Middle Ages.
The most conspicuous feature of May Day festivities in every town and
village became the towering maypole,
usually made of the trunk of a tall
birch tree, the
height of which was not to be less than that of a mast of a hundred ton
vessel. The pole was covered with wreaths of flowers, and round this a
constant stream of
villagers danced and sang throughout the day, accompanied
by a piper and Morris dancers. In Elizabethan times, the fairest maiden
of the village was chosen queen of the May and a May king was sometimes
appointed too. Together they led the village dancers and ruled over the
Maypoles were usually
set up for the day in small towns, but in London and the larger cities
they were permanent installations.
May Day festivals became so
raucous and wild that the Puritans were able to force the government to
forbid them. Considering maypoles to be heathen eyesores, the Puritans
ancient custom and uprooted all the evidence. The church of St. Andrew
Undershaft, St. Mary Axe, marks the site of a very celebrated maypole,
the name signifying that the pole in front was higher than the church,
but after a denigrating sermon at St. Paul’s Cross the pole was
the ‘merry monarch’ restored the May Day rites, the City of London and
the villages soon revived
the tradition that continues today.
The French consider
the month of May sacred to the Virgin Mary, so they enshrine young girls
as May queens in their churches who lead processions in honour or the
Virgin Mary. Cows also play important roles in French May Day
Bunches of flowers are tied and draped around their tails as they are
led in parades. Everyone tries to touch the cows because it is believed
to bring good fortune and on May Day morning, people drink milk still
warm from the milking to assure good luck during the year.
Greek children set out
early in the morning to search for the first swallow of spring. When the
bird is located, the children go from door to door singing songs of
spring. For their efforts, neighbours offer special treats to eat, such
as fruits, nuts, and cakes.
In England, there's
little to rival Oxford's May Day celebrations. Centuries old traditions
are upheld with undying enthusiasm by the youthful population of this
student town, who gather in their thousands every year to hear the choir
of Magdalen college sing in the new May dawn from the top of their
events starts on the preceding night (30 April) with parties throughout
the town, the best being a huge outdoor affair at Port Meadow - a field
that has been common land (where building is forbidden) since medieval
times. Although most revellers forsake the meadow for the bridge during
the early hours of the morning, insomniacs who you stay around till
sunrise will see Morris Dancers appear, complete with trademark bells
round their ankles, to dance in the new day.
crowds gather at the bridge from about 5am - it's a good idea to get
there early for a spot. Usually, foolhardy students attempt spectacular
jump into the rushing Cherwell river, which is not more than about six
feet deep and the bridge quite high enough to break a leg. As the
choir starts to sing the Medieval Eucharist hymn, the raucous crowd
hushes. No one knows when the tradition of May Day dawn singing began,
but records go back to the 17th century, and it could stretch back
further still. Whenever it started, the beauty of the ethereal voices of
the boy choir soaring out into sudden silence is incredibly moving.
After the singing the crowd gradually disperses, many flocking to the
breakfast picnics thrown in the college gardens, impromptu cricket
matches, and the many pubs that open early by special dispensation to
sustain the flagging revellers.
Alternatively, you may prefer to see in the start of spring the West
Country way. If so, prepare yourself for a strange assault by an
overgrown hobby horse - it could make you fertile.
Every May Day,
the streets of Padstow fill with revellers who watch in
amazement as two black-clothed hobby horses, with big red eyes and
snapping teeth, make a bee-line for every woman they pass, drawing them
under their cloaks and daubing them with coal. To be caught under the
hobby horse's skirt is thought to be good luck and even
fertility-inducing! Such bizarre goings-on were first recorded in the
16th century and continue today as fertility rituals, held to mark the
coming of summer.
fun in Padstow, a fishing village on the stunning north coast of
Cornwall, actually begins just before midnight on April 30 when locals
gather in the town square around the maypole and then proceed to the
Golden Lion Inn where they sing beneath the keeper's window to wake him
with the news that 'summer is a-come'. They continue their
trouble-making, waking various other residents of the village before
retiring to bed in time for the next day's celebrations.
At 10am the next morning, the 'Old Original Oss' (a man dressed in the
hobby horse costume) comes out of the Golden Lion with the 'teazer' and
they begin dancing through the streets, surrounded by crowds and
followed by men dressed in white who dance and play an insistent drum
beat, which can be heard all over town. When the beat stops, the hobby
horse sinks to the ground, rising only when the beat begins again.
The teazer and the hobby horse dance together, mimicking each other's
movements, in a procession through the streets, which are especially
decorated for the occasion with bluebells, hazel twigs and other
spring-like paraphernalia. It is traditional for onlookers to drink
plenty of the local ale - in past years they have run the brewers dry -
for this Bacchanalian ritual is taken seriously by the locals.