May Day

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by Margaret Watson

May Day is always celebrated on the first Monday in May, which means that this year it will be Monday May 5th.

In my Shropshire school they had a Maypole. It is probably long gone, to make way for netball courts or climbing frames which can be used every day, but then it was only a once-a-year experience. Someone would climb up and attach ribbons in various colours to the circle at the top.  A little girl then held on to her ribbon and danced in an intricate pattern so that the ribbons crissed and crossed to form diamonds of colour. Well, that was the theory, but we were very young, totally under-rehearsed and the result was chaos, and one child nearly getting strangled in pink ribbon – but at least we enjoyed ourselves. I wonder if they ever got the ribbons untangled.


Like a lot of other festivals May Day has its origins in the far distant past – in this case it is linked to pagan feasting to celebrate the first day of summer. The Saxons would begin their May Day celebrations on the eve of April 30. It was a night of games and feasting to celebrate the end of winter and the return of the sun and fertility of the soil.  Villagers would make their way by torchlight up paths to the top of the tallest hill in their area and there they would ignite wooden wheels which they would roll down into the fields as symbols of the path of the sun.

Usually a May Queen is chosen by each village or town, probably in the distant past to represent some goddess of fertility. There is keen competition for this role despite the expense of new dresses, hairdos and all the rest, or maybe because of them.

Living as I do on the edge of the Derbyshire Peak district more important festivals in this part of the world take place all summer with the famous well dressings, but May Day is the start of the well dressing season. This began at the time of the Black Death in mediaeval times. Villages celebrate their escape by making large trays of clay, into the damp clay are pressed flower petals in intricate patterns and pictures, almost always depicting some Biblical scene. Each village has its own day when the pictures are placed near a water source and much jollity, feasting and drinking goes on, all presided over by the May Queen, attended by the queens from surrounding villages.  Morris dancers are to be seen dancing, usually near a local inn, with their sometimes very odd costumes, handkerchief waving and hobby horses.

In Oxford singers climb the tower of Magdelene College on the banks of the river, and welcome the dawn with hymns of praise. Cambridge University, rather less religiously, hold May Balls, one for each college, though for some reason these are often held in June – perhaps to ensure better weather for the traditional punt up the river afterwards.

May Day is also associated with Worker’s Rights and often it is a day for Trade Unions and other associations to organise marches and rallies. International Worker’s day is May 1st.

In Cornwall the day is still associated with its pagan roots with the Padstow ‘obby Horse, a fertility celebration once linked to the pre-Christian Beltane festival. This is not for the faint hearted as it begins at midnight with singing. Then the whole town is decorated with flowers and greenery. There are two hobby horses, each of which wears a large cloak on a frame. Under this, with the help of various young men known as 'teasers', and to the accompaniment of many drummers and other musicians, they try to trap the young ladies of the town. The festival closes at midnight when the town’s people sing of the death of the hobby horses until their rebirth the next year.

Whatever way people choose to celebrate, it is time for fun and feasting – and why not? After all, summer is here at last!