British traditions: May Day in Oxford

May Day swept past weeks ago, but that won’t stop us here at Notes. We’re not so small-minded that we’ll be bothered by a little thing like the calendar. I learned about the Oxford May Day celebrations from a newspaper photo and caption, and the clipping just rose to the top of the swamp I call my computer table. So let’s slip back in time.

Oxford celebrates May Day in traditional style, and Britain takes its traditions seriously. At 6 a.m., the Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin; don’t ask; no answer will make sense of it anyway) College choir sings “Hymnus Eucharisticus” from the Great Tower as the sun comes up.

A quick reality check before we go on, though: The sun came up at 5:36 that day. I just looked it up. But who am I to argue with tradition?

Marginally relevant photo: This is a flower–a lupine if you want to be specific. May Day has to do with the coming of summer, when flowers bloom. I know, it was a stretch, but we got there.

According to one source, the choir has been doing this for 500 years. Presumably not with the same singers. According to another source, the song was composed in the 17th century. I just counted on my fingers and that would make it 400 and some years old (probably—we can’t trust my fingers when they’re counting stuff), but if tradition says it’s 500 years old and the sun’s just coming up, okay, it’s 500 years and the sun just rose. See its little red dome poking over the horizon?

Yes, England is a cloudy country. That’s why it can have a 500-year-old tradition and in all that time never notice that it’s mis-timed the sunrise.

After the song, the bells ring out for twenty minutes and everyone goes deaf.

Sorry, that’s “approximately twenty minutes” and everyone goes deaf. I don’t want to misrepresent this.

After that, there’s morris dancing on the streets, breakfast in cafes and pubs all over the city, and if I’m reading this right, a whole shitload of drinking, which starts the night before and continues until everyone falls over. Or (see below) jumps into the river.

Oh, and there’s some deeply traditional samba dancing.

Samba was introduced to Britain in the 1980s by, among others, the passionate anti-apartheid activist Steve Kitson. Since then, Britons have been dancing it so intensely that by now it’s been going on for 500 years.

Magdalen (pronounced—oh, one way or another; I’ll get to that in a minute) Bridge is closed to traffic from 3 a.m. till 9 a.m., but it’s open to pedestrians. In the 1980s, people started jumping off it into the river Cherwell, and in 2005 some 40 people were hurt, including one who was left paralyzed. The river can be low at that time of year. The city works madly to discourage jumpers. Some of whom have been drinking for 500 years by then.

I’m going to be deeply discouraged if someone convinces me that the song really is 500 years old and that the sun rose at 6. In the west.

Now, about Magdalen Bridge. The college is pronounced maudlin. Magdalen Street is pronounced magdalen. Magdalen Road is pronounced maudlin. The bridge? I don’t know. My best guess is that the M, G, D. L, and N are silent.

I’ll write about morris dancing in a separate post. Stay tuned.

62 thoughts on “British traditions: May Day in Oxford

  1. We also have a Magdalen College here in Cambridge, also pronounced Maudlin, equally as baffling. There is also a propensity for epic May Day drinking and the flinging of oneself into the river. I don’t know. I’m British and it doesn’t make much sense. I can only assume it is a University thing.

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  2. Seen from where I’ve been conditioned, Britain since long made me think of Japan . The ubiquitous will of maintaining secular traditions associated to modernism is a surprising similarity, if I dare to say .
    The best thing with Japan IMO is it gave Zen Buddhism to the world . Perhaps the relationship with humor and this particular species of humor is Britain’s best gift to the world, what we might call British Zen …

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You surely have known for long that you should be worried 😉 . The similarity is this obvious desire of maintaining very old and sometimes maybe pointless traditions in two countries that are besides extremely modern . And when you look at the main landmass of the planet, the huge Eurasia that was the craddle of nearly everything,in our last era, you see 2 islands on each extremity, each one with an elongated shape North/South, narrow from East to West . Add that Japan received world culture through its neighbor China as Britain did through her neighbor France, I can see several parallels .

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  4. Thanks for the history lesson. It’s humbling to know that as the first ships were heading to discover and begin mispronouncing stuff in New England, these guys were singing, ringing, drinking and jumping into rivers.

    By the end, I thought I’ve either been struggling with British pronunciations for 500 years or I haven’t yet had enough to drink. Having jumped off a (very low to the water) bridge once in my youth, I can tell you that alcohol is required.

    One question: If you start drinking at 10:00 pm and you’re still drinking at 6:00 am, are you granted a new day? I mean, at 9:00 am, have you only been drinking for 3 hours…today? I ask because our weather forecasters seem to include up to 6:00 am in their “Night” forecast.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ve been around here long enough by now to know that when I read numbers, all I hear in my head is a buzzing sound, right? I was okay as far at 6 a.m., but after that it was, “If train A leaves the station at 4 o’clock, heading east on southbound tracks, and the engineer on train B [called the driver in Britain but let’s not go into that] orders a hamburger at 6:45…” Okay, I’ll stop. I think I’ve demonstrated my problem: I don’t really understand the question. Which won’t stop me from answering it. Do they get a new day? No. Why should they? Because they’ll have a hangover and waste the one they were issued to start with? C’mon, they didn’t have to jump in the river, so they didn’t, strictly speaking, need all that alcohol.

      Sorry, but I don’t think we can negotiate on that.

      On the other hand, 500 years of mispronouncing things? When “Make America Great Again” wears itself out completely, I’d like to propose that as a national slogan. (I recently read a call to make this planet great again. I wonder if it’ll catch on.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Mother`s mother`s family were from Oxfordshire and had relatives who lived in Oxford itself. As far as they were concerned there were two communities…Town and Gown. Town thought Gown was a perfect pest giving as an example its habit of throwing firecrackers under the hoofs of the horses drawing the horse buses. I have no evidence of what Town thought of people throwing themselves off bridges but suspect that as long as it was Gown doing it Town would have hoped for the worst.

    When you come to morris dancing remember Terry Pratchett`s notion that the preliminary long drawn out note on the squeezebox is to alert everyone that morris dancing is about to commence and thus give them time to leg it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The closest thing I can remember about a ‘tradition’ for May Day was a fella I once dated…he liked to chant: “Hooray, hooray, the first of May…outdoor sex begins today…”

    In hindsight, he did have a place in the country beside a babbling brook…maybe I should have tossed him in ?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello Ellen—lovely column, and lots I had never heard of before, despite May Day being pretty significant to me and other pagans and people who live here in Powderhorn Park! Flo showed me one or two other articles and photos from you, which I enjoyed, but now I’m hoping to get your blog regularly. Did Flo tell you about the May Day celebrations in Padstow? The Padstow Horse teams? Even stranger! Plenty of You Tube clips from different past years–maybe you can take it in next May (pretty close at hand)? Best, Scott

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you root around in the blog enough, you’ll find a post on the Padstow May Day celebrations. It’s probably under Traditions. I’d give you a link, but I’m too lazy to dig it out, and it probably doesn’t add anything to what you already know. Point being, we’ve been there, although we did miss the core of the celebration, which (I get the impression) isn’t the hoss or the dancing or the song but (yes, you see it coming, don’t you?) the drinking.

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  8. Oxford, the university, just loves its traditions. During his exams last month my nephew had to wear his gown as he went from his college to wherever it is that the exams are held. In his first week there he had to do something requiring him to wear a bow tie. That’s a tradition that can’t date back much more than a couple of hundred years, if that. He says they are very firmly discouraged from jumping in the river on May Day. I suspect the prohibition applies to every other day of the year, as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m sure it does apply to every other day of the year but I’m equally sure it’s easier to enforce on those days.

      It’s hard to believe students are required to wear silly clothes (sorry–there I go being objective again) to certain activities in this day and age. I guess I assumed the sixties ran an eighteen-wheeler through that sort of stuffiness. But I must be underestimating the stuffiness of the universities in question.

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  9. Current UK Government has large proportion of ex-Oxford or Cambridge students. Both places have 500 year tradition of heavy drinking rendering them senseless followed by blindly leaping off a precipice and in to the unknown. To be honest, we might all be less maudlin if the universities mentioned just had a ‘joining hands together and dancing around a pole’ tradition.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Oops – hit send too soon – Morris dancing is a thing around here but in a very different form and it will be out on the streets for the Orange Day parades (groan, town centre best avoided) on 12 July. It’s girls and women only and a bit like Irish dancing – but not at all prim and proper in dress! Had never heard of it till we moved to a town north of Liverpool when coaches of little girls would roll in to the local leisure centre to practice and have competitions. Hard to track down good videos but try this one for a flavour: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EoCbJyoFVQo

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that. The only morris dancing I’ve seen is all very much the same–except a few troupes dance in black costumes instead of white. Goth morris dancing, I guess. So this is news to me.

      What I can’t figure out (having just watched it) is how it’s morris dancing.

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