I wrote this blog post on 1st May 2011 and thought it would be good to reblog it today. Happy May Day everyone!
England – that glorious melting pot of history and culture – celebrates May Day today, 1st May. Related to the pagan festival of Beltaine, May Day is a celebration to mark the banishment of the cold, dark winter and to welcome in the summer. Fertility was important, and the Beltaine celebrations were centred around blessing the earth and making offerings for a good harvest later in the year. May Day was traditionally the day that saw renewal, rebirth, re-awakening and regrowth begin.
Villages all over England have their own local May Day traditions, often built around maypole dances, Morris men, the crowning of a Queen of the May and the revels of the Green Man or Jack-in-the-Green, an ancient woodland spirit.
- The Minehead Hobby Horse a dummy horse and fertility symbol rampages through the streets of the Somerset village of Minehead for three days (May 1-3) accompanied by noisy musicians and a rowdy crowd that is rowdiest on the last night. The Hobby Horse accosts passersby for donations and embarrasses those who don’t pay up.
- The Padstow Obby Oss comes out of its stables, near Padstow harbour on the morning of May 1 accompanied by singers, dancers and musicians. The parade goes door to door, up and down this north Cornwall town’s narrow lanes and attracts thousands of spectators. Traditional forest greenery – hazel catkins, bluebells, cowslips, forget-me-nots and sycamore twigs decorate the village.
- The Helson Flora Dance takes place on the 8th of May and is thought to be one of the UK’s oldest May Day traditions. From 7 a.m. until after five, the people of this Cornish village dance in the streets. There are several different dances, including a children’s dance that involves as many as 1,000 children, dressed in white and garlanded with lily of the valley. In Victorian times, this The Helson Flora Dances were banned.
- The Gawthorpe Maypole celebrations in Yorkshire, include the crowing of a May Queen, maypole dances and a parade on Saturday of the Early May Bank Holiday weekend.
- The Clun Green Man Festival in Shropshire is a 3-day event of folk singing, dancing, traditional arts and crafts. The highlight is the battle on the bridge between the Ice Queen and the Green Man.
Morris Dancing is common on May Day and in true English style, there are many different styles of dress and dancing. They are broadly similar and since the 1970s have enjoyed a big revival all over the country. Forms of this type of folk dance can claim pre-Christian origins and may have developed as a means of ensuring fertility of the soil, crops and animals when the survival of whole communities depended on the fortune of the crops. The ritual elements of its origins can still be seen in the dances today the clockwise circle to represent the sun, crouching down, leaping in the air and banging sticks on the ground to encourage the crops to grow. Handkerchiefs are waved, bells ring and sticks are clashed to ward off evil spirits. The Saddleworth Morris Men are just on my doorstep and are a fantastic group to watch and listen to.
Maypole dancing is where on May Day, people used to cut down young trees and stick them in the ground in the village to mark the arrival of summer. People danced around the tree poles in celebration of the end of winter and the start of the fine weather that would allow planting to begin. Maypoles were once common all over England and were kept from one year to the next. Schools would practice skipping round the pole for weeks before the final show on the village greens. The end results would be either a beautiful plaited pattern of ribbons round the pole or a tangled cat’s cradle, depending on how much rehearsing had been done.
May Day celebrations had all but disappeared completely under the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the mid 17th Century, and it wasn’t until the restoration of the monarchy with Charles II that many practices were revived. They died out again in the 19th century and much of our traditions were lost, but as recently as the 1970s saw a revival in our folk history and year after year celebrations are gaining in strength and number.
May Day this year (2021) is the second year in a row that the traditional May Day celebrations have had to be cancelled or curtailed due to the pandemic and I wonder what next year will bring? For now though, I wish you a blessed Spring time and a bountiful harvest when the time comes.
Love and light