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.

Traditional British celebrations: May Day in Padstow

The Padstow May Day celebration is so old that no one knows when it began. The only things that are certain are that (a) it’s genuinely ancient and (b)it’s still going on.

In addition to the inevitable alcohol, the celebration involves songs, dance, drums, accordions, and two ‘Obby ‘Osses, one red and one blue. Actually, both are mostly black (with a head that looks nothing like a horse’s), but their followers (dressed mostly in white) wear either blue or red sashes and whatevers. The tradition’s so deeply rooted that during World War II soldiers from Padstow cobbled together a celebration as best they could, making an ‘Oss out of blankets.

We heard that from a woman whose father had done it.

Padstow, Cornwall, May Day, 'Obby 'Oss

The ‘Obby ‘Oss. It’s good luck for the kids to touch it. These shots are from the children’s parade, which is in the morning.

Padstow’s Tourist Information Centre web site talks about “many conflicting theories about the origins of the Obby Oss. [Some spellings leave out the apostrophe, and since I’ve been a copy editor, I can’t help noting that sort of nonsense. I’m sure every last snoozing one of you cares just as passionately.] Some say its roots are in pagan times, others that it’s a rain maker, a fertility symbol, a deterrent to a possible landing by the French some centuries ago or even a welcome to summer.”

My best guess is that a lot of those things were layered over each other during the course of centuries. My next best guess is that Cornwall doesn’t need rain often enough for a rain-making ritual to get ancient, so that’s the only theory I’d rule out.

I checked several sources for the morning song’s words (there’s also an evening song), and they vary, but basically it has lots of verses and you can find one to justify almost every theory. Except rain. So layers, right? I found references to the French, one verse mentions the Spanish, and several mention the white rose and the red. Since the War of the Roses wasn’t fought on Cornish soil, I’m guessing they’re about purity and passion, but I may be importing that from some English lit class I took—the one called Stinkingly Obvious Symbolism and its Heavy-Handed Interpretation.

The song’s worth a listen.

Even if you discount the roses, it’s hard not to find fertility references. The verses are full of beds and bodies. And then there’s the belief that a woman caught under the ‘Oss’s skirts will be pregnant within the year. Can’t get much more stinkingly obvious than that.

The ‘Oss flashed his skirts over Wild Thing the first time we went. That was several years ago and she’s still not pregnant. Now it’s true, she’s past the age and in a same-sex relationship, as well as lacking a uterus for the past few decades, but even so, if you’re looking to get pregnant I recommend trying the more conventional method in addition to getting under that ‘Oss’s skirts.

Here’s a handful of photos. They are—in a break from tradition—relevant to the post.

Padstow May Day children's parade

From the children’s parade.


The best way to see the 'Oss.

The best way to see the ‘Oss.


The second best way to see the 'Oss. It does get crowded.

The second best way to see the ‘Oss. It does get crowded.


If there's any rivalry between the followers of the Red 'Oss and the Blue 'Oss, it doesn't seem to turn into hostility.

If there’s any rivalry between the followers of the Red ‘Oss and the Blue ‘Oss, it doesn’t seem to turn into hostility.


Following the blue 'Oss.

Following the blue ‘Oss.