"Bringing in the May" - the history and culture of the traditional English May Day
Bringing in the May!
May Day celebrations in England have a rich and diverse history. Strands of the festivals come from different pagan, polytheistic, and Christian traditions, all of which became mixed together over the years.
Different parts of England, and the British Isles as a whole, focus on different traditions.
This article looks at some of the diverse origins of May Day festivities, the traditions which arose from them, and May Day celebration in two particular English towns, Padstow in Cornwall, and Oxford in Oxfordshire.
May Day is joyous and fun, marking the end of the long, dark winter nights, and welcoming the new growth, the baby animals, and the growing season.
I hope that you too will enjoy Bringing in the May this spring!
English Spring time scenes
Beltane is the Gaelic name for both the month of May, and the festival of May Day.
Beltane was celebrated in Celtic areas of the British Isles, including Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Wales, and Cornwall.
Beltane marked the beginning of the summer season, and was celebrated at slightly different times across the Celtic world, depending exactly when summer was held to begin.
The word Beltane comes from two words and means fires of Bel. Bel was a Celtic God.
Fire was one of the most important aspects of the festival, and the Beltane spring festival was aimed at encouraging fields and crops and trees to produce well.
The fire was thought to cleanse, and purify the land before the coming of summer, and it was hoped it would also increase fertility.
Courting, wooing and relationships were a very big part of Beltane. Young men and women would frequently gather flowers and greenery before the evening, in order to decorate the celebration area.
Two fires were often lit, and cows led beween the two fires to encourage them to produce lots of milk, and good strong calves.
The Green Man is often associated with Beltane, and is a significant aspect of fertility. Green Man is still a very common name in England for pubs.
It was also common during Beltane for greenery to be hung over the doors and windows of houses, and either rowan or whitethorn to be entwined together to make wreaths.
Rowan and whitethorn were popular because they were frequently in bloom at the time, and whitethorn is also nicknamed as "maybush" or ""may" in English.
Maybushes, often now in churchyards, were decorated with coloured eggs, ribbons, and garlands.
- Anglo-Saxon Heathenism
A site about many different aspects of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon life and custom.
- The History and Meaning of Beltane
A pagan site, giving details of many pagan festivities. This article is about Beltane, and is very interesting.
- May Day history and folklore
May Day has been celebrated for thousands of years giving rise to some strange seasonal customs, detailed here in this BBC article.
- Why the Easter Bunny Speaks Latin
A fantastic article about the Venerable Bede, and his history-writing
Thrimilci or Three Milks Month, Anglo-Saxon England
The pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon calendar had, like our modern calendar, twelve months.
The year began on our Christmas Eve. The fourth month in the year was Eostremonath, and the fifth month was called Thrimilci.
The calendar was divided into only two seasons, summer and winter, each containing six months.
The first summer month was Eostremonath, which got its name from the goddess celebrated during the month, Eostre, the goddess after whom Easter is named in English.
The fifth month, our May, was called Thrimilci, which means three milkings. This was owing to the fact that for the first time in the year, cows could be milked three times.
Most of what we know about Anglo-Saxon calendars and celebration was recorded by the Venerable Bede in the eighth century.
In many Saxon cultures, and it is believed in Anglo-Saxon communities in what is now England, the festival of Walpurgis or Thrimilci was celebrated between the 22nd April and the 1st May.
The festival celebrated started on April 22nd, and days between April 22nd and April 30th revered the wood tree.
On the ninth night, Walpurgisnacht, the God Odin held the runes, grasped them, and died for an instant and all light ended.
At the stroke of midnight, light returned, fires were lit, and the God regained life. On the 30th April, the dead rule the earth. It is similar to the festival of All Hallows Eve or Halloween, in modern Christian culture.
The name came from Saint Walpurga, born in about 700 in Devon in England.
In the same way that early Christianity adopted the festivals of Yule and Easter, it appears since Walpurga’s day was set to combine with the old north, Viking and Saxon feast.
1st was then the festival of Thrimilci, a day of
festivity, fertility and the forthcoming summer.
In pagan Anglo-Saxon culture, May Day’s Eve marked the death and rebirth of Odin. Trees were an important part of the Anglo-Saxon celebration.
This was because during the nine days before Odin’s discovery of the runes, he was strongly associated with a tree, the world tree Yggdrasil. We do not know that much about how the Anglo-Saxons celebrated the 1st of May, although it does seem to have involved trees, greenery, and the celebration of forthcoming summer.
The history of Roman festival for the goddess Flora is described here.
- Guide to Norse pagan holidays
A description of the main Norse celebrations each year, including those at the start of May.
- Pretanic World
A fascinating website which covers all the pre-Roman cultures in the British Isles, including Celts, Druids, the Bronze Age, and Neolithic Man.
London Spring Flowers
Floralia - the festival of the Roman goddess Flora
In the pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses, Flora was the goddess of flowers and the season of spring. She was also associated with fertility.
Her yearly festival was called Floralia, and was held at the end of April and thebeginning of May. The festival lasted from April 27th to 3rd May and celebrated the cycle of life.
It was celebrated with dancing, colourful clothes, flowers, and the decking of temples with flowers. Roman prostitutes considered the goddess Flora to be their equivalent of a patron saint.
You start in April and cross to the time of May
One has you as it leaves, one as it comes
Since the edges of these months are yours and defer
To you, either of them suits your praises.
The circus continues and the theatres lauded come,
Let this song, too, join the circus spectacle.
Flora had two temples in Rome, one close to the Circus Maximus, and the other halfway up Quirinal Hill.
The festival was infamous in Roman times for being one of debauchery, and was licentious.
The Catholic Church made another attempt to take over May celebrations, with Roodmas. Rood is an old English word for cross, as in rood screen in churches.
The "Mass of the Cross" or "Holy Cross Day" on the 1st May celebrates the discovery by St Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, of the True Cross in Jerusalem in 355AD.
There is a similar cross mass on 3rd May, called "Crouchmas". This feast day has since been moved by the Catholic Church to September, to celebrate the actual day when St Helena is supposed to have found the true cross.
The Church's attitude to May Day
The church was never entirely sure about May celebrations, because they did have such pagan origins.
There is a record of priests complaining in 1240AD about May Day celebrations being pagan, and the church was frequently alarmed by maypoles and may dancing.
The fervent desire in the Middle Ages to associate May Day with the Virgin can be seen as a way of countering the superstitions and traditions attached to May Day celebrations.
The puritans in England banned May Day after the Civil War and execution of Charles the First, and, along with other festivals which were banned by the puritans such as Christmas Day, they were reinstituted with vigour by Charles the Second after the Restoration.
A video of the Rochester Sweeps May Day Festival
"Going-a-Maying" and "Bringing in the May"
Many of the traditions of May Day were set during the early Middle Ages, and were tolerated if not encouraged by the Catholic Church in England.
“Bringing in the May” meant getting up before dawn, washing hands and face in the dew to encourage beauty, and going out into the fields and woods to collect flowers and greenery to make into wreaths and garlands.
“Going-a-Maying” referred to going out into the woods and trees before May Day itself in order to collect flowers and greenery to weave into elaborate structures to be put around a maypole, or to decorate a church, or houses, on May Day itself.
This was slightly different from "bringing
in the May" early on May Day itself, that involved more elaborate and
beautiful garlands and wreaths.
English May Day celebrations
Children dancing round a Maypole in Lustleigh
The May Pole
The maypole is thought to come from the ancient Saxon, Viking and other pagan traditions involving the worshipping of trees. No-one is, however, entirely sure.
What is clear is that maypoles have been a crucial part of May Day celebrations for hundreds of years in England.
The maypole itself is a tall wooden pole which is either put up every year, or stands permanently on a village green.
There were many maypoles erected during the fifteenth century, and they were often a focus of inter-village rivalry and were stolen if possible.
The more puritanical brand of the Reformation of Christianity denounced maypoles, starting under Edward the Sixth. Mary the First, being Catholic, and Elizabeth the First, enjoying revelry, did not in any way ban maypoles themselves, but there was increasing local pressure to get rid of them.
The puritans got rid of them, describing maypoles as heathenish, superstitious, wicked, and vain.
Dancing round the maypole was either done casually, or there were also dances for sets of dancers who weave and un-weave ribbons tied to the top.
Dancers weave in and out of each other each holding a ribbon, so that as they continue around the pole, the ribbons are wrapped from the top of the pole to the bottom in what is supposed to be an attractive pattern.
May Queen and May King
There is a long tradition of crowning a May King and May Queen. Often these are held together, but if there is only one, it is more usual to have a Queen of May or a May Queen.
This is another ancient and heathen tradition which was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church, and on May 1st many Catholic parishes hold a May crowning, dedicated to Mary, Mother of Jesus.
It is suggested that the Queen of May tradition may come from the older Roman tradition of Diana, the hunter and goddess of beauty. The May Queen was usually chosen from the local young and unmarried women, and was crowned with the greenery collected the day before.
She was often accompanied by a Green Man, May King or Lord of May, who was in many festivals the equivalent of the Lord of Misrule during Christmas and would tell jokes and order the local worthies to undertake common tasks such as serving drinks or food to the common people.
Morris Dancers from Greenwich dancing in Diss, Norfolk
A very important part of May Day celebrations involves Morris dancing. This is a kind of rhythmic dancing involving flags, sticks and handkerchiefs being waved around.
Morris dancers frequently wear bells especially on their feet, so that when they are dancing in step the bells ring out in unison.
Morris dancing was done around the calendar in England, but was particularly common on May Day and at Whitsun, both May holidays.
There has been an increasing interest in Morris dancing since the revival by the arts and crafts movement in the late nineteenth century.
The musical accompaniment is most commonly provided by a melodeon, but can also be a violin, pipe, or accordion. Drums are also fairly popular.
English May Day festivals
- Morris Dancing
A site explaining and demonstrating Morris dancing.
- Rochester, Kent
Rochester's long-running May Day Sweeps Festival is explained here.
- Oxford's May Day celebrations
An article about the planned celebrations for May Day 2009 in Oxford.
- Padstow's 'Obby 'Oss Day
The BBC's description of the 'Obby 'Oss Day celebratins in Padstow, Cornwall, each May Day.
Jack in the Green, or the Green Man
Jack in the Green is a character who takes place in May Day dances and May Day parades.
Jack is a man substantially covered in greenery, made from garlands of flowers and boughs of trees.
It was essentially a medieval character, and decorations got more and more elaborate until no man could actually be seen under the forest of greenery through which he danced.
Jack O Greens were discouraged during Victorian times, because there were traditions of him chasing women and being seen as drunk.
There has been a revival of Jacks in the Green in the last few decades in England. Whitstable and Rochester, both in Kent, are perhaps the best known modern examples of Jacks in the Green on May Day parades.
May Day horse parade
Horse parades were also popular on May Day in the past, and to a lesser extent, today.
Horses were decorated with garlands of ribbons and flowers, and paraded through villages and around the countryside in order to encourage the health of the horses, and the fertility of crops and fields.
Although an English-wide custom, this was particularly popular in northern England.
Oxford May Day celebrations
May Day in Oxford
May Morning is held in Oxford every May Day.
It starts at six o’clock in the morning with the Magdalen College Choir singing songs and hymns, starting with the "Hymnus Eucharisticus" from the top of Magdalen Tower.
This is a tradition which has been going on for at least 500 years. There is then a street party including dancing, especially Morris dancing.
For the last 30 or 40 years, students have decided to jump off Magdalen Bridge. This is something the authorities do their best to discourage, because the water is fairly shallow, and it does people a great deal of harm.
A longer tradition involves university students punting along the river instead, in punts decorated with flowers.
There are frequently June balls held the night before in Oxford, so many attenders at May morning will still be in black or white tie, and have been up all night celebrating.
Cornwall's May Day
Padstow's 'Obby 'Oss May Day
Padstow, a seaside town on the northern shore of Cornwall, celebrates ‘Obby ‘Oss day on the 1st May.
No-one knows precisely when the festival started, although there are references to it as far back as the 1500s.
The festival starts at midnight on the 1st May with singing groups around the town, and the buildings of the town are decorated with greenery, flowers, and ribbons, there is a large maypole, and groups of dancers go around the town.
The centre of each group is a horse, or a hobbyhorse. The horses, people dressed up with masks and flags, dance around the town with their groups of human dancers, and end up dancing around the maypole later in the day.
There are similar hobbyhorse festivals in other parts of Devon and Cornwall, including Penzance, but the Padstow is the best documented and best known of the ‘Obby ‘Oss days.
The flowers which decorate Padstow are numerous, but particularly common are cowslips, bluebells, and forget-me-nots.