English Traditions: May Day

Any May Day celebrations that were planned this year have been canceled, so what better time could we find to look into the tradition itself, and to the festivals we can’t go to?

May Day starts, depending on who you want to believe, with either 1) the Romans celebrating Flora, the god of flowers and spring (or goddess, if you like male and female endings for your gods), or 2) the Celts, celebrating Beltane, a fire festival of–

Let’s start a new paragraph here, because this is too complicated to dangle off the end of an already convoluted sentence. In fact, it’s going to take more than one paragraph, so let’s start an extra new one. What the hell, they’re free and I don’t have to go out of the house to get them. 

Relevant photo: Any flower can pass as relevant to a post about May Day. These are, I’m reasonably sure, an ornamental cherry.

The Celts had a god named Belenus. That ending sounds suspiciously Latin, so what we know was probably filtered through the Romans, who had a habit that the Celts didn’t at that point: They wrote things down, and so we turn to them for information on people they understood at best imperfectly. The people who really knew about Belenus? They didn’t leave us a record.

Belenus, if you believe a random sampling of enthusiastic but non-authoritative online sources, was a sun god. If you believe the Brittanica, he wasn’t. He was “widely associated with pastoralism” and Beltane was celebrated on May 1 with fires where cattle were purified before being put out in the pastures for the summer. 

The holiday was also associated with fertility, as anything in the spring would be. If stuff doesn’t start growing right about now, you’re not going to make it through the winter.

I’m going to put my money on the Brittanica, which goes on to say that there’s no evidence the Celts worshiped the sun, although they used sun images a lot. Images aren’t proof of worship. Give me a piece of paper and a good chunk of boredom and I draw images of snails. I don’t worship them. The damn things eat my lettuce. They’re just something I’m able to draw.

So, we’ve got two origins, and it’s entirely probable that the two met sometime after the Romans invaded Celtic Britain and that they got along fairly well. The Romans had no objection to new gods as long as the locals agreed to nod politely to the Roman ones when they passed on the street. 

When the Anglo-Saxons came, they introduced the maypole to whatever celebrations the Celts and the Romans had negotiated.

Then, bit by bit, what’s now England was converted to Christianity, which did not nod politely to other gods when they passed on the street. It’s an exclusive religion. It allows for one god and considers all others either devils or superstitions. But when you’re trying to make converts, sometimes practicality wins out over theory, and it quietly absorbed a lot of the old ways. By way of an example, churches were often built on the sites of holy wells, keeping the sense that the spot was holy but changing the form and the content. And many of the old religious festivals continued, shedding bits of their history, power, and context as time went on, until outsiders could look at them and see them as nothing more than the superstitions of the ignorant. 

So after enough time passed, no one remembered how some of the festivals started or what they used to mean. They became just something we do on a particular date because we always have, and anyway, they’re fun. You know: quaint folk traditions. Does anyone know when and why they started chasing wheels of cheese down a heart-stoppingly steep hill in Gloucester? I doubt it was ever religious, but who’s to say? 

So May Day continued, but without the religious elements. 

By the time we get to Henry VIII (or possibly earlier, in the full-on medieval period), we’re talking not just about May Day but about May games, which spilled over into the rest of the month and somehow or other picked up a link to Robin Hood. And to morris dancing. 

You can’t do anything for long in England without morris dancing coming into it. It’s one of those mysteries that no one understands except morris dancers, and they keep trying to explain it, but the rest of us never do understand.

Then the Puritans came to power under Oliver Cromwell, and they were always ready to spoil the fun. Any fun. They shut May Day down and banned maypoles, since they were “a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness.” 

Don’t try to make too much sense of that “abused to superstition” thing. They talked like that then. Or at least they wrote as if they did. It may have been a plot to keep people so busy trying to make sense of the words that they didn’t have time for fun.

Then the monarchy was re-established and Charles II had a giant May pole set up in London. Let’s assume he wanted to prove that his was bigger than Cromwell’s. It stayed in place for 50 years.

Do I really want to make jokes about that? I still haven’t decided.

May Day made a big comeback in the Victorian era, but the Victorians didn’t want to hear about that fertility stuff, so they put kids on the end of ribbons and taught them to dance around the Maypole and look innocent. 

The Victorians reinvented a lot of traditions, with questionable accuracy. The early Maypoles may have involved flowers or kerchiefs and banners, but they also involved  drinking, less aggressively innocent dancing, and general carrying on. 

In recent decades, assorted groups of people have gone back to the early religious practices and reinvented them. If we’re desperate for something to squabble over, we can argue over how accurate they are and what it all means. The comment box is always open.

We can’t leave without acknowledging the political May Day, an entirely different holiday that falls on the same day and just to confuse things has the same name. It began in 1890, during the fight to limit the working day to eight hours, when marches and demonstrations often turned out tens–and sometimes hundreds–of thousands of people. After the Russian Revolution, it became heavily associated with the Soviet Union, although periodically it gets reclaimed by other left-wing groups. 

That’s it for the history. What events aren’t happening in Britain this year? 

Obby Oss Day in Padstow, Cornwall. This involves music, dancing, crowds, flowers, ritualized battle between the red Oss and the blue Oss, and if you know where to look (and sometimes even if you don’t) a stunning amount of alcohol. 

Sometimes that’s spelled ‘Obby ‘Oss. Your choice. There’s not a maypole in sight.

Beltane in Edinburgh.  I’m cheating on this one since it happens on the evening of April 30 and it’s in Scotland, which would be happy to remind me that it’s not England. It involves fire, drumming, and body paint. It is, I think, one of those modern recreations.  

The Jack-in-the-Green festival in Hastings. This involves costumes, a procession, poetry, music, the release of the Jack and then the slaying of the Jack to release the spirit of summer. 

And morris dancing.

The Rochester Sweeps festival in Kent. It runs for three days and doubles as a folklore festival. It involves a Jack in the Green, music, dancing, and morris dancing, which gets its own mention (that wasn’t my decision, she said defensively), separate from dancing-dancing.

The Jack in the Green part of it dates back to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, according to a local website.

Originally it was a May Day celebration where people would make garlands with flowers and greenery. The garlands became increasingly elaborate as work’s guilds would compete against each other, eventually so extravagantly that they covered the body entirely. The garlands were originally carried by milkmaids during May Day Parades – They became larger and more intricate to the point where they would balance them on their heads whilst the rest of their bodies would be adorned with silver houseware.

“The Chimney Sweep’s guild, not to be outdone by this and also to earn more coins from the watching crowds, upped their game to the point of covering their whole bodies in a framework covered in foliage and flowers. This became known as The Jack in the Green, a familiar participant in May Day Parades. The garlands are made out of a framework usually conical or pyramid in shape, covered in different types of fauna and flora.

“May Day was traditionally a holiday for the Chimney Sweeps and became known as ‘Chimney Sweeper’s day.’ . . . Jack in the Green became known as a practical joker associated with licentious and bawdy behaviour which soon became disapproved of in Victorian England.”

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that history anymore than I can vouch for the skill of the person who edited it, but with a lot of folk traditions all you have to go on is the stories that get passed down from one generation to the next. I can confirm that the internet’s awash in connections between chimney sweeps and May Day.

That’s a sampling. Calendar Customs lists more.

92 thoughts on “English Traditions: May Day

    • Wow. I’d love to know that. Interesting how these traditions filter down through the generations.

      A friend here used to threaten here daughter, when she was small, that the Cornish Giant would come and eat her up. (It’s recommended on page 73 of the Good Parenting Book.) Then she–the daughter–met the husband of her mother’s friend, who’s very–although not terrifyingly–tall, a quiet, gentle man who’s occasionally called the Cornish Giant. She was predictably terrified. It took a while before that all settled down.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, well, once upon a time, the Obby Orr character used to chase the maidens and would throw his “skirt”(same as in Padstow today) over a virgin and carry her off to be “sacrificed” to the season.I doubt mother had that element in mind…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m pretty sure she didn’t.

          The version I’ve heard is that if he throws his skirt over a woman, she’ll get pregnant. Oddly enough, my partner didn’t. Maybe there’s some fine print that we didn’t read.

          Liked by 2 people

    • In a gray, damp country, that becomes an even more potent question. I won’t try to explain their ways, especially since we don’t really know what they were, we just have educated (and less educated) guesses.

      Chimney sweepers? Apparently. I should see what else I can learn, because I don’t know much beyond Blake, which is a firmly planted in my mind as in yours. Blake can do that, can’t he?

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Nothing I’ve read suggests that May Day was important or even a thing in the Middle Ages. There was a week’s holiday at the end of May, after Pentecost, but the beginning of May doesn’t get a mention.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In Irish the month of May is called “Bealtaine” which makes me think that the Irish may have invented the whole Beltane thing. I never did get Morris Dancers. My intial thoaught was if the Victorians santized them beyond recognition, or just invented them from scratch? However a quick look at Wikipedia shows me that they have been around since 1480s so I am totally wrong there!

    Liked by 2 people

    • The Irish and the British Celts were, I think, fairly tightly intermingled at various times, so I suspect anyone would be hard put to sort out who invented what. As for morris dancing a friend–a former morris dancer–helped me understand it by explaining that her troop was a drinking club with a dancing problem.

      I think the pre-Victorian (or possibly pre-Cromwellian) dancers were a rowdier lot.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You may have a point, they do have those big sticks they bash about. I bet in Tudor times they hit each other a lot more, There used to be this marvellous Tudor “game where you kicked each others shins until one of you gave in, or something like that.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’ve read about shin kicking, in I can’t remember what context. I’m sure it happened, and was probably even popular, but some part of me refuses to believe it. So yes, I expect those sticks were for something more than clacking against each other in a controlled way.

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  3. Here’s some more about the Irish tradition of Bealtaine. https://www.yourirish.com/traditions/bealtaine. Lately the month has been taken over by Age and Opportunity to provide a month long celebration of creativity among the elderly. https://ageandopportunity.ie/arts/bealtaine-festival/. Like everything else it has been overtaken by Covid-19. Will we, in future, have a new spring festival celebrating the defeat of the pandemic? That’s making the bold assumption that it will be defeated. We could have people wearing PPE dancing around hospital beds before said beds were set fire to. Future generations would deduce that we worshipped activities that take place in bed – back to fertility again!

    Liked by 1 person

    • If we ever get through this, I’m going to nominate you to stage the celebrations. Then I’m going to hide in the shrubbery and see what happens next.

      This got lost in spam. Sorry to leave you hanging.

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    • And to you. We’ve had some much-needed rain and rumor insists that the sun’s coming back for the weekend. In the midst of all this disaster and strangeness, it’s been a stunningly beautiful spring here.

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  4. Hi Ellen – hope all is well with you both. Happy May day.

    The lily of the valley comment refers to Helston furry day. This ancient festival is usually held on May 8th in Helston, Cornwall. It is a Spring festival to celebrate the end of winter and mark the arrival of the new vitality and fertility with the trees and flowers bursting into life. The houses and shops of the town are decorated with greenery and floral arrangements to express the spirit of renewal.
    When the big bass drum strikes the first beat of the dance at seven in the morning, the spirit of the day is stirred and the celebrations commence. Some eighty couples dance through the streets, entering selected houses and shops to drive out the darkness of winter and bring in the light of spring.

    The colourful Pageant, known as Hal an Tow, tells the history of Helston with the participating characters singing about the challenge of the Spanish Armada, the English patron saint, St. George and the fight between St Michael and the devil-so there you go! Oh, and all the participants wear lily of the valley flowers.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The workers May Day and the revived folklorists May Day get pretty confused in the English Tradition. See for example Walter Crane’s Illustrations for Workers Mayday, which actually look quite similar to Kate Greenaway’s pretty childrens pictures of the festival. When I was little the year was punctuated by seasonal demonstrations, the Aldermaston March at Easter and the May day March either on May Day itself (for people who thought the day should be a holiday, and the Sunday nearest to Mayday, for people who wanted a big march involving the whole Labour Movement. There were floats (decorated lorries) and music. Once I remember there was a May pole and big children dancing. The Labour and Communist Parties, the Co-op, and Trade Unions all participated though I think sometimes the two marches may have divided along sectarian lines between Labour and Communist supporters. The May Bank Holiday as I recall only came in because of Labour Party pressure in the 1960s. But it could not be on the day itself and this year has moved to VE day. How do I post pictures here?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You will be unsurprised to hear that I have danced in both the Hastings Jack in the Green Festival, and the Rochester Sweeps festival!
    Jack in the Green involved a huge procession up a big hill in the pouring down rain which made me so cross I vowed never to go again!
    Rochester Sweeps was always fun though, of course I will not be dancing this year, and wouldn’t have been after my unceremonious split with Mythago, however it was fun when I did it :-D

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to have a first-hand report–especially about the pouring rain, which makes it so much more first-hand. About the split with Mythago: Humans in groups are difficult, aren’t they? We can’t get along without other people–we’re herd animals–but we can’t seem to get along with them either. Someone’s always got to get in someone else’s face. I’m really sorry it happened to be yours.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve never done Morris dancing, and most people watch it with a slight air of embarrassment, though a lot of it clearly relates to any number of somewhat more martial sorts of folk dance. But I do remember that my primary school class’s contribution to one particular fête worse than death was to be made to do a maypole dance, with the coloured ribbons. That sort of thing was all the go in the 1950s, when there was still much talk of a “new Elizabethan age” and associated hey-nonny goings-on. As I recall, someone turned the wrong way and all the ribbons got tangled up, and that was the last time it was mentioned.

    One other May Day custom is the Oxford May Morning (he said through gritted teeth, having gone to the Other Place, which is much too Puritan for such things):
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_Morning

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I grew up in a small town where the Eastern Europeans pushed out the indigenous Irish (or maybe they just moved to better areas), but the town still celebrated May Day which, we gathered, involved children running around the May Pole while holding onto ribbons. Then they would bring flowers to the statue of Mary at the local Irish Catholic Church. So, I guess the tradition is still changing?

    So, where did “May Day! May Day!” come from (the cry for help)? You can’t just look the other way on this one, inquiring minds want to know, or or just so bored they can’t think of anything else.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. They purified the cattle with fire. I wonder how they did that. Hope it was nothing painful for the cattle.

    I googled Mayday Maypole. Information on its meaning and origins were all over the place, from Britain as the return of the sun-not sun worship- to ancient Rome – the Goddess of flowers, they ate cake and danced. Then some sources say it us from pagan Germany. Tgey pole us a symbol for sacred trees. Also celebrated, some say in ancient Egypt and India.

    In early new New England a man put up a maypole and the puritans chopped it down and shipped him back to England.

    There are some celebrations in America but more protests Protests against all kind of things. Take your pick.

    And why do airplane pilots say Mayday when the plane is in trouble. Always wondered about that.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Most of my knowledge of MayDay/Jack in the green comes from a Jethro Tull album.

    It actually coincides with a lot of the tradition (though as far as I know there is no Morris Dancing.),
    When I was in high school in the early 60’s May 1 was Law Day and we had some speakers (an early form of Career Day, more or less) This apparently was to counteract any Communist implications.
    Happy May Day – this post is a nice break from current reality !

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Try this…https://youtu.be/EwJLKdU50KE for a bit of Maytime frolicking.
    There used to be a tradition of going out at dawn to pick the blackthorn’s flowering branches on May day,,,but most unlucky to bring them into the house…Henrietta Maria did so and was considered to have cursed her family…..and I can’t remember which 17th century pamphlet so informed me as it is more than fifty years since I last looked at the LSE’s collection.
    I do remember though that bringing any white flowers into the house was regarded as unlucky, white being regarded as a mourning colour…something reflected in the mourning garments of Queens of France, and so, I can but suppose, translated to Scotland as yet another part of the Auld Alliance.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is nice. Thanks. It seems a little decorous to frolic to, but maybe that’s just something the passage of time does to things. In 150 years, if anyone’s still around to listen, punk music may strike some listener that way.

      Okay, I had to take a break there to have a good giggle over that. I’m back.

      April and May here would offer a person an awful lot of flowers to not-bring into the house. It’s a belief I’d never heard of, anymore than I’d heard of white as the color of mourning anywhere but in China. Thanks.

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  12. Aren’t there those big weapons parades by dictators on May Day? I’m likely mixing things up. I think people just wanted to get outside because it was finally nice and they made up some good reason for it. May Day as a distress call is a bit like blockade, which comes from the French bloque, but with the accent mark I don’t have over the e.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. “fires where cattle were purified” – Is this where barbecues started, a purification ritual that went off course. “Mmmm, lets call this a burger.”

    Were those the same Puritans that came over here and burned women who had inherited property, um, I mean witches, in order to take their property?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. When I was a child in West London, my primary school always celebrated May Day with a maypole in the playground. We were taught how to weave in and out as we danced around and that was how I learned how macrame worked. One year, my older sister was made May Queen and I was more than a little envious, but I enjoyed the dancing and celebration anyway. It was a happy time. I didn’t understand it all then, and I don’t now, but I remember it fondly.

    Liked by 1 person

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