For summer it is come unto day;
And whither we are going we all will unite
In the merry morning of May.
Yes, it’s May Day. No one really knows the origin of the celelebration, although it almost certainly derived from the Celtic feast Beltane.
One of the rituals associated with the holiday is maypole dancing, one of the many popular pastimes Cromwell put an end to in 1644. You see–how shall I put this delicately for you Regency ladies–quite often the top of the maypole had a suggestive shape. Although May Day customs were revived after the Restoration, maypole dancing enjoyed a massive comeback in the Victorian era, when musicologists began collecting folk songs and rituals. The decorative ribbons and flowers stayed, and the whole thing became wholesome and practiced by schoolchildren.
As part of the May ritual, the celebrations began the night before with couples disappearing into the woods to gather may (hawthorne). They’d emerge the next morning with stupid grins and armfuls of flowers. A Queen of the May would be chosen, and sometimes a King of the May.
Sometimes the Queen of the May is not a person, but a special doll that is brought out each year and paraded around the community in a shrine of flowers made out of linked hoops. In some places you can find Morris dancers.
In Padstow in Cornwall, the Padstow Oss is paraded around the town to the beat of a drum while the song I quoted at the beginning is sung. Everyone gets really drunk. The song has references to St. George, rather like a mummers play, and is probably very ancient.
You can hear the song, read all the verses, and find out more about the Padstow Oss at its website, Blue Ribbon Oss.
May Day Traditions and Customs in England and Christine O’Keeeffe’s May Day Customs sites are also great places to find out about the varied and strange May Day celebrations in England and beyond.
Have you ever joined in a May Day celebration? Or tried maypole dancing?–I have. It’s really difficult! And once you’re tangled up, there’s no going back.
And a bit of shameless self promotion: The Rules of Gentility is a finalist in the National Readers Choice Awards!