In the UK, every settlement, village and town has evolved its own variations on a May Day festival, though some elements are common to most. We looked to local traditions to inspire our celebrations, and also found some other interesting and creative ideas along the way.
Traditional customs have been plentiful on May Day and there was a time that May Day was second only to Christmas in popularity. Before the invention of electricity and gas our ancestors delighted in and greeted the arrival of Spring. Folk would join together for “Going a Maying”. This meant leaving the town or village in the early morning to find greenery and flowers particularly yellow ones such as Marsh Marigolds which were bought back to decorate houses and make garlands. A 16th century author said “In the morning every person would walk into sweet meadows and greenwoods there to rejoice their spirits with the beauty of sweet flowers and the harmony of birds.” The Celts celebrated ‘Beltane’, a Fire Festival, with hilltop fires, around which they danced “sunwise.”. The word 'Beltane' originates from the Celtic God 'Bel', meaning 'the bright one' and the Gaelic word 'teine' meaning fire. Together they make 'Bright Fire', or 'Goodly Fire' and traditionally bonfires were lit to honour the Sun and encourage the support of Bel and the Sun's light to nurture the emerging future harvest and protect the community. Milk maids used to dress the handles of their milk kits with leaves on May Day morning and in some places it was a tradition for young women to wash their faces in the morning dew on May Day morning. May Day was a time of revelry and could include eating, drinking, morris and maypole dancing, archery, tug o’war and other games, plays, processions and making coronets and garlands; crowning of a May Queen and electing a Jack-in-the-Green (see later).
Children’s Garlands Until the 19th century and in some places into the 20th century it was a tradition that on May Day children would make spring garlands and would travel from house to house singing and dancing. They would sometimes receive money which might be spent at Spring Fairs. Garland Days still linger on in a few places. In Abbotsbury, east of Bridport, there is an Abbotsbury Garland Day. Until the turn of the 1900’s Garland Day marked the opening of mackerel season and children of local fishermen made garlands which were blessed in the church and then hung on the prow of each boat. In memory of this a garland is still thrown out to sea. This happened on the 13th May. It is thought that before the change to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, May Day was on this date. Children would have had more of a choice of flowers at this later time and the Hawthorn (or May) would have been more likely to be in flower.
May Poles The first May Poles were tall trees that were cut down and erected in the centre of a village or town and decorated with garlands and trinkets. Sometimes the same tree trunk would be stored and brought out every year. Only later did they have attached ribbons for the Ribbon Dance where children hold the ribbons to create weaved patterns on the Maypole. People might hold hands as they sang and danced round the tree and there would be much eating and drinking round the base. Some historians talk about the role of tree idolatry in some religions such as paganism which may have been the basis for this custom .The Puritans banned the use of May Poles in 1644 and they were described as a “Heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness” . Banned May Day traditions were resurrected in 1660.
Flower Service: Bridport The town of Bridport in West Dorset has for many years been prominent in keeping up an old flower custom on May Sunday — the first Sunday in May. The Bridport News in May, 1885, gave an interesting account of the ceremony, where on “May Sunday ” the children, to the number of 312, assembled at the schools in Gundry Lane, and having been duly marshalled in procession, marched to the parish church, carrying flowers. They came up South Street as far as the old castle, and going down the east side of the street crossed again by the rectory, and entered the church by the west door, occupying seats in the nave, which were given up to them for the occasion by the parishioners who generally used them. The children were accompanied by their superintendent and also by their teachers.
Queen of the May The custom of having a May Queen perhaps harks back to when this flower-crowned maid appears as a living representative of the goddess Flora, whom the Romans worshipped on this day. The May Queen traditionally did not join in the revelries of her subjects. She was placed in a sort of bower or arbour, near the May Pole, there to sit in a pretty state, an object of admiration to the whole village. She herself was half covered with flowers, and her shrine was wholly composed of them. May Queens featured in Tudor and Stuart celebrations, though the Queen was usually one of a Royal couple – the Lord and Lady of the May. The Victorians tended to filter out the male presence and focus on the queen. The poet, Alfred Tennyson did much to popularise the tradition with his long poem The May Queen. The month of May is consecrated by the Catholic Church to the Virgin Mary as “Queen of May”. Pilgrimages and visits are made to churches dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. A “May crowning” of statues of Mary with garlands, and a rosary procession are often features of the tradition. The custom spread from the 17th century and perhaps compounded the Puritan hostility to May Queens, who were now not only associated with the pagan Flora but with the papacy!
Jack-in-the Green The Jack-in-the-Green is a traditional participant in May celebrations and May Day parades in the UK. He often “wears” a large framework covered in combinations of foliage and flowers which might be topped with an intricate crown of flowers. The Jack then parades or dances around, often accompanied by attendants sometimes known as “Bogies”. They dress in green rags adorned with leaves and flowers and with their faces, arms, and hands covered in green paint. Some Bogies interact with those watching by handing out small gifts to children or by adorning the watchers’ faces with some of “Jack’s magic” which, to the uninitiated, may look remarkably similar to green face paint! Morris Dancers, musicians, and assorted characters (bizarre ‘grotesques’) may appear alongside Jack. London chimney sweeps took 1st May for their festival. May Day was traditionally a holiday for the chimney sweeps and became known as “Chimney Sweeper’s Day.” May was a slack time for sweeping chimneys and they used the holiday to raise money to keep them going. The connection between the Jack-in-the-Green and chimney sweeps continues today in many towns and cities. Some argue that the Jack is in no way connected with the Green Men found adorning churches, particularly because there is no evidence of any extra attention being paid to them at this time of year. Others are convinced that the connection is a strong one, and that they are merely different aspects of the ancient spirit of the wildwood, of rebirth and renewal, and of the coming of summer.
Present Day Bridport Community Orchard Group welcomes you to enjoy our May Revels – in keeping with some traditions that reach back into the mists of time. As Apple Day and Wassail customs are revived all over the country and enjoyed by new generations, so too can we enjoy the arrival of spring in the orchard and celebrate with music and morris and may pole dancing, a Robin Hood mummers Play, garland making, eating drinking and making merry as custom dictates. We also hope that Anna can bring her sheep; look out for them making their way around the orchard to be petted and admired. And not to be missed will be the crowning of the May Queen and electing of a Jack-in-the-Green to oversee the festivities. Merry May!
With grateful thanks and acknowledgements to the following for making available some of the information included in this piece:
Dorset folklorist John Symonds Udal “Dorsetshire Folklore” 1922
Bridport News (a) May 1885 (b) May 1990
The Dorset County Chronicle June 1918
Chambers Book of Days May 1st 1864
The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser 2nd May 1775