The first day of the month of May is known as May Day. It is the time of year when warmer weather begins and flowers and trees start to blossom. It is said to be a time of love and romance. It is when people celebrate the coming of summer with lots of different customs that are expressions of joy and hope after a long winter.
Although summer does not officially begin until June, May Day really marks its beginning. May Day celebrations have their origins in the Roman festival of Flora, goddess of fruit and flowers, which marked the beginning of summer. It was held annually from April 28th to May 3rd.
Although May Day is now the first day of the month of May, before 1752, when the calendar was changed, it was 11 days earlier.
May Day Bank Holiday
The month of May has many traditions and celebrations. For the convenience of the general public many May Day activities have now been moved to the new May Day holiday on the first Monday of the month. This Monday is a bank holiday, a day off school and work.
Many of the May Day celebrations take place at the weekend as well as on the 'May Day' Monday. The weekend is know as bank holiday weekend because it comes with the extra day holiday on the Monday.
How was May Day Celebrated?
It was custom for every one to go a-Maying early on May Day. Herrick, a 17th century English poet wrote:
There's not a budding boy, or girl, this day,
But is got up, and gone to bring in May.
May Day began early in the morning. People would go out before sunrise in order to gather flowers and greenery to decorate their houses and villages with in the belief that the vegetation spirits would bring good fortune.
Washing in the early morning dew
Girls would make a special point of washing their faces in the dew of the early morning. They believed this made them very beautiful for the following year.
May Day Garlands
Young girls would make May Garlands. They covered two hoops, one at right angles inside the other, with leaves and flowers, and sometimes they put a doll inside to represent the goddess of Spring.
In some parts of Britain, May 1st is called Garland Day.
The first of May is Garland Day
So please remember the garland.
We don't come here but once a year,
So please remember the garland.
May Day Lifting
There was once a tradition in England of 'lifting' where a gang of young men would lift a pretty girl in a flower bedecked chair on May day. Then the girl would choose a boy on May 2nd.
May Queen and other Festivities
The rest of the day was given over to various festivities. There was dancing on the village green, archery contest and exhibitions of strength. The highlight of the day was the crowning of the May Queen, the human replica of Flora. By tradition she took no part in the games or dancing, but sat like a queen in a flower-decked chair to watch her 'subjects'.
A traditional May day dance is known as Maypole Dancing. 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 them 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.
Many English villages still have a maypole, and on May 1st, the villagers dance around it.
The tallest maypole is said to have been erected in London on the Strand in 1661; it stood over 143 feet high. It was felled in 1717, when it was used by Isaac Newton to support Huygen's new reflecting telescope.
May Day Tricks
In the North of England, the first of May was a kind of late 'April Fooling' when all sorts of pranks would take place and 'May Gosling' was the shout if you managed to trick someone. The response would be:
'May Goslings past and gone. You're the fool for making me one!'
May Day Celebrations today
In some places, May Day celebrations begin at sunset on 30 April. They include lots of floral decorations and processions through towns and villages.
Charlton-on-Otmoor, a village near Oxford
A May-Day festival is held involving all the children from the Primary School. It starts with a special May-day song followed by a procession to the church. Everyone wears white and carries garlands of flowers. The girls wear straw bands and posies and ribbons in their hair.
In the church, the posies are laid in a great spread below the Rood Screen, which is specially decorated with a Rood-Cross completely wrapped in Yew leaves and branches.
After a very full special service, all the children process back to their school with all their families and friends. They dance a number of May-day dances and Maypole ones too before tucking into a great MAY Day feast.
Rochester Sweeps Festival
Rochester's annual Sweep Festival celebrates the traditional holiday that chimney sweeps used to enjoy on 1 May. It was the one time of the year when the sweeps could put away their tools and have some fun.
The Sweeps Festival is a colourful mix of music, dancing and entertainment. An opportunity to see some of the traditional dances and hear the songs which have been past down from generation to generation.
Padstow 'Obby 'Oss
The oldest May Day celebration still taking place to day, is the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss celebration in Cornwall. Its roots date back to the 14th century. Every May Day thousands of people come to see the two famous Hobby Horses, the Old Oss and the Blue Ribbon Oss.
Celebrations in Padstow officially start the night before at midnight, when a groups of 'mayers' meet outside the Golden Lion Inn to serenade the owner with their Night Song:
Rise up, Mr. Rickard, and joy to you betide,
For summer is a-come in today;
And bright is your bride, that lays down by your side
In the merry morning of May.
The whole town is ablaze with bluebells, forget-me-nots, cowslips, and sycamore twigs. Dancing and other celebrations take place all day.
Another traditional dance seen throughout the month of May is Morris Dancing. The dancing is very lively and often accompanied by an accordion player.
Morris dancers are usually men and wear different clothes depending on the part of the country in which they dance. They are often dressed in white with coloured baldrics (coloured belts) across their chests.
There are usually six or eight dancers arranged in two lines or in a circle facing each other. The dancers may carry white handkerchiefs that they shake, or short sticks that they bang against each other as they dance.
There are also single dancers who wear special costumes.