Celebrating May Day in Britain

May Day’s over for rhis year, but let’s talk about traditional British celebrations anyway.

First the really exciting part: Most people pay it about as much attention as they pay April 30. They rumble off to work if it’s a work day. They clean up the hairball the cat left on the end of the couch. They save a couple of rubber bands in little plastic dish that came with the plums they bought at the supermarket. Or maybe that business with the rubber bands is just me. I’m not British-British, just Americo-British. We can’t judge the British by what I do. An English-British friend saves them in a drawer. Maybe that’s more culturally appropriate.

But you see what I mean. So what if it’s May Day? Who notices?

Still, traditions are traditions, and even if people mostly ignore them we’re going to take them seriously. Because as an immigrant, I pay attention to this stuff.

The celebration of May Day goes back to the Roman celebration of Floralia, which honored (or something’d) Flora, the goddess of flowers. It also goes back to Celtic traditions and the celebration of Beltane. Or so an assortment of websites say. How much anyone really knows about ancient celebrations that left no direct line of believers or practitioners is anyone’s guess, but what the hell, modern mythology creates its own traditions. I’m in no position to complain about other people taking things seriously.

We could take a minute here to argue about whether Celtic’s a useful category, since it the Celts didn’t call themselves Celts, but let’s break with the tradition here at Notes by not getting too sidetracked.

May Day also–or so they say–goes back to the Anglo-Saxons.

When a tradition has this many origins it’s either something ancient people had a very powerful need to celebrate or else modern people are making it up. The choice is  yours.

Were any of these celebrations actually on May Day? Beats me. Months aren’t what they used to be and I’m doing well to keep track of the 2018 calendar that hangs on my wall, never mind the ones they used way back when. What I can tell you is that some websites say May Day is celebrated because it’s the start of summer but others say Britain’s meteorological summer begins on June 1 and the astronomical summer starts on June 21. They don’t say a word about May 1.

Are you confused yet? Good. We’ll begin with me repeating that we might want to take some of the ancient traditions with a few grains of salt, and some modern ones might need–. Oh, dear. I just googled “hangover cures,” thinking Pepto Bismol might be either out of date or too specific to the U.S. The list of cures Lord Google offered included pickle juice, coconut water, miso soup, bananas, and leafy greens, but none of them have the universal tang I was looking for.

The list did remind me that the world’s moved on since my last (and only) hangover, when I thought mashed potatoes would help.

They didn’t. But that digression does prepare us to talk about Cornwall’s own May Day celebration in Padstow, Obby Oss Day. Without in any way calling its pedigree into question, I’d still recommend taking it with a grain of mashed potatoes.

No one knows what Obby Oss Day’s origins are, but it’s been going on uninterrupted for hundreds of years and may be connected to Beltane. It also may not be. Either way, it’s legitimately old. It involves drinking, singing, flowers, and a oss. Or maybe that an oss. I was allowing an absent but imaginarily present H, but–oh, never mind. I’ll just avoid letting the words bump up against each other from here on.

Padstow, Cornwall, May Day, 'Obby 'Oss

A relevant photo–something so rare it’s an endangered species: This is the red Obby Oss.

The Padstow Obby Oss website says, “Before the First World War there was only one hobby horse in Padstow, the old oss, but in 1919 the blue ribbon obby oss the was introduced. Also known as the temperance oss, its supporters tried to discourage the drunkenness associated with the custom. There are records of a few attempts to tackle the sometimes raucous behaviour associated with the festival, but none have ever worked. During 1837 some residents did not approve of people firing pistols in the air during the celebrations, and so rallied together to try and stop it by putting up posters which threatened people who did fire guns with a fine.”

I’m not sure when that business with the guns stopped, but it’s in the past now. The drinking continues. A friend who not only goes but takes time off work so he can dedicate himself seriously to the celebration says it rumbles on into May 2, but only local people know about that part.

The drinking and the singing are legendary.

More generally, according to WikiWhatsia May Day was originally a religious holiday but survived as a secular celebration when Europe became Christian. Much later, it was banned by the Puritans, who caught a whiff of its non-Christian origins and suspected that people were having fun. I’m not sure which they considered worse.

It was brought back in 1660, when the monarchy was restored.

In many places, morris dancing has a strong association with May Day. As far as I’ve been able to understand it, though, morris dancers have a strong association with everything. They’ll show up anywhere they can pull a crowd–or borrow someone else’s.

Dancing around a maypole and crowning a May queen are also traditional.

Inevitably, I googled “maypole dancing” and when predictive text offered me “maypole rentals” I was about to use it to show that dancing around a maypole is still popular, but then I followed the link and it turned out to be for rentals in a place called Maypole. So never mind that.

Still, there’s another way to make the argument: Cornwall LIve reports that maypole sales are growing and traditional May Day activities are drawing crowds the like of which they haven’t seen for years. 

Why? Because collapsible maypoles are now available the they can be stored and used the next year.

Who knew they had to be bought? I thought they came from the woods. Or the air. And who knew that someone could make a living teaching maypole dancing, but the article quotes someone who does. I never even stopped to think that it had to be taught, but if the dancers can avoid tying each other to the mast, I guess that’s good. 

And May queens? If a village crowns one, it will choose only one, and she may be balanced out by many men dressed as the green man. Any man, it seems, can decide to be the green man, but god help the woman who crowns herself the May queen instead of waiting sweetly for someone else to pick her.

Excuse me while I hide in the corner and puke without in any way calling your attention to myself.

In fairness, Historic UK gives us the lone May queen balanced by a single Jack-in-the-Green, who would lead the procession.

What procession? Why, the one associated with May Day, silly.

I’m not sure if the green man and Jack-in-the-green are the same character. We’re into more ancient legend and modern interpretation. One website dates the green man back to Rome, but another part of the same site says the label dates back no earlier than 1939. We’ll save all that for a different post.

Before we go, though, no roundup of ancient legend and modern interpretation is complete without a quick visit to Glastonbury, a city with a reputation for being–. How am I going to put this? Alternative. Alternative to what? You name it.

Glastonbury seems to go all out for May Day. No collapsible maypole for them. Men dressed as the green man carried a maypole made from a tree trunk and a fire was lit in (presumably) the Beltane tradition. A series of newspaper pictures shows green men as well a couple jumping the fire. The caption on the fire photo explains that jumping a Beltane bonfire blesses a couple’s union and encourages fertility. I know the world’s changing, but the man in the photo is as likely to get pregnant as the woman is. Or as I am, while we’re at it.

On the other hand, the world’s a wide and interesting place. If literal fertility’s unlikely beyond a certain age, may they find the metaphorical kind in this season of rebirth when the trees put forth leaves, the lambs are shiny and new, and the weeds thrive. And may you find the same yourself.

Stay out of the fire. It’s dangerous.

72 thoughts on “Celebrating May Day in Britain

  1. I recall doing the Maypole dance as a child. My school’s music teacher had us do it each year and when I mention it to people from other places, am surprised I am usually the only one who knows what that is!

    Liked by 1 person

      • No, other places in the US. I don’t recall mentioning it to anyone from another country. Of course, May Day has a different connotation as a day for labor in many countries. In the US, in a counter to that notion, May Day is supposed to be in support of the law. Seems a terrible wast of a fun holiday, though I doubt anyone observes it that way except lawyer and police, if that!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I remember when they introduced Law Day, or whatever the hell they called it. Or–well, at least I remember when I first heard of it and I think it was just being introduced. My impression is that it pretty much got the reception it deserved.

          I meant to get into the political May Day but it all got too unwieldy.


  2. Interesting stuff as usual however I feel it’s important to point out that honoured is spelt with a ‘u’. Call me pedantic, call me a spelling nazi but here in the UK we expect all residents, even those from former colonies, to write in proper English.
    Excellent post by the way!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jack in the Green and the Green Man are the same person (AFAIK)

    Lots of Morris Dancers get up at a ridiculous hour on Mayday and dance up the sun…we don’t because we like sleep and have to go to work later…

    We celebrated it later on 5th May by dancing at the Sweeps festival in Rochester, which is to do with May and the green man, but also chimney sweeps for some reason…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. May Day’s something that’s pretty much passed me by most of my life but I did witness a real live May Pole with children dancing round it *yes, really, I could not believe my eyes) in the rural idyll that is Reynoldston, a Gower village.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I also always thought that May Day was associated with Anglo-Saxons. Then again, parts of Asia celebrate it too – in Singapore 1st May is called Labour Day and it’s a public holiday. May Day is also my birthday. In Australia, no one gives a hoot about the first of May, and it really is just another day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the southern hemisphere–. Well, it started as a way to welcome in the warm weather. In Australia it would make no sense at all. May Day as Labor Day has a separate origin, dating back to the 19th century, when it was established both to honor workers and to commenmorate the Haymarket Martyrs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haymarket_affair. I’d have liked to mention that as well, but it got too unwieldy to get into both of them.

      Happy birthday.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I love coming here on “history day” when I learn the literal and less-than-literal truth behind the traditions that rule our lives. You actually did answer a question that I’ve had for a long time – why did England let the Puritans go off and settle America? Clearly it was to get those fun-hating-non-drinking folks out of England. Send the prisoners to Australia (or Georgia) and send the dull and boring people to New England. What a way to keep your country great – get rid of all the losers.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. May Day celebrating might perhaps be less observed in modern times because of a in-built distaste for the modern Labour Day or International Workers Day by Conservative (aka ‘the Modern Puritans’ perhaps?) governments in the UK. They just don’t like it because of the socialist origins of that coincidental holiday. Certainly I remember the day having more Maypoles and dancing celebrations when I was of young school age (1970’s, mostly Labour Governments) and has been subtlety declining since, oh, about 1979 ish…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. So many things of note in your post, but I especially like “oss.” As for the rebirth of spring…a very old cycle that never seems old. I don’t think I will ever get tired of the new green of the leaves or the burst of flowers. Come, spring!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Very grateful for all the links to informative sites on the holiday. In spite of the fact that May Day has always appeared on my various calendars, I’ve never really understood its meaning. In fact, I always thought it was only an excuse for Muscovites to celebrates the latest in armaments. Once again, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Thanks for the enlightenment!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I was “chosen” to be May Queen once, ostensibly by chance. Highlights of the day included even my date muttering “You certainly weren’t the prettiest woman there but at least you were the youngest…”

    I’ve had dental surgery that was more pleasant and more profitable.

    I suspect that’s why the queen had to wait to be picked.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I went to a junior school where we had our own maypole for dancing round which they stored in my parents’ garage in off-season.
    There is film footage of me maypole dancing somewhere in the family archives, where we shall leave it.
    I did safely jump a Beltane fire in Glastonbury and managed to remain without child.
    When I got to Michigan I was invited to a May Day celebration that was very proud of having a May pole. But no one actually knew how to dance round it so I ended up organising that bit and everyone seemed a bit affronted, so I didn’t go there again.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I’ve probably said it before, but I suspect that many of these traditions are only a couple of hundred years old and heavily embellished by the Victorians.

    On to more important matters: rubber bands are kept in drawers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • April, I appreciate the way you tackle the important issues. Without you I’d stick out like a sore thumb in this country.

      Actually, I stick out anyway. I’ve been wondering why. I’ll go move those rubber bands right now. And I’m sure you’re right about the Victorians. I suspect we’re going through another period of embellishment right now and people in the future will look back and say the same thing about us. Wonder what they’ll call us. And I wonder what it says about a period that it does that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m glad the advice was useful.

        My dad has a dictionary from the late 50s or early 60s called “The New Elizabethan Reference Dictionary”, so I’ve thought of myself from an early age as a New Elizabethan.

        I also think we are going through one of those periods. I suspect they happen when people lose confidence in their own time and look back to things that they perceive as timeless, or unsullied by whatever the current predicament is. It’s not a fully formed theory, though.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That–the losing confidence thing–makes sense to me, although I thought of the Victorians as supremely (over)confident. Although, having said that, I also think of them as carrying a tinge of it-used-to-be-better-back-when.

          Is there anything else I can say to contradict myself??


          • I think, and again, this is just something I’m considering at the moment, that a lot of Victorians lost confidence because Darwin took God away from them. They had to find something to fill the space and they looked to the past. I’m not entirely convinced by it as an argument, but it will wander around in my brain for a bit longer.

            Liked by 1 person

            • It’s an interesting possibility. Having your intellectual furnishings rearranged isn’t an entirely pleasant process. What my mind jumped to was industry, with all its noise and dirt and horrors and industrial-scale exploitation. Not everyone would’ve recoiled from all of those things, but all together they might’ve made it easy to look back to a rural idyll of England and want to go back to it.

              Liked by 1 person

              • That’s good as well. The industrial revolution started a lot earlier, of course, in the eighteenth century, but they were starting to understand what it meant by the nineteenth. The Luddites were active in the early 1810s and people were beginning to realise what they had given up. It only got worse from there.

                Liked by 1 person

              • That makes sense. There was, I think, a sense of the thing building up a frightening momentum, and of the world inexorably changing. As seems to be happening today. It’s enough to drive a person to dancing around a maypole.


    • >They save a couple of rubber bands in little plastic dish that came with the plums they bought at the supermarket.
      I always put the rubber band on a kitchen work surface, thinking that I’ll find a proper home for spare rubber bands a bit later. The band then stays in the kitchen for a day or two, being moved from place to place. Then I throw it in the bin because I’m fed up withseeing it and I haven’t got round to organising the rubber band home. Then I feel guilty because I’ve added to the planet’s waste mountain.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. When we lived in Illinois I became accustomed to receiving a May Day basket filled with flowers and cookies on my front porch. We had a family of six kids across the street and I’m fairly certain the baskets came from them; although, they’d never confess. I loved the tradition and miss it terribly.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. >Flora, the goddess of flowers.
    Times change. Nowadays, Flora is the goddess of low fat spread and can be found gracing the dairy shelves in most UK grocery stores.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Great post! Mayday or Beltane is celebrated here (Ireland) too with fires on 30th April that lead to other traditions. Some have fallen out of favour as we now have ovens and central heating – but others are still going strong.

    Without link dropping I have a complimentary post about Beltane & the Butter Witch should you be interested ( though, I can sympathise if you have had it with Mayday nonsense at this stage lol!)

    Liked by 1 person

  16. It’s a fertility festival a good time to marry off young people and to make babies to pair of young people. They would also light two fires close together and pass the cattle between the two to rid them of pests, that tradition has now become jumping the fire for couples.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting how traditions change. It couldn’t have been easy to get cattle close enough to a fire for it to do much good. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in charge of that part of the ritual.


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