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.

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.