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.