Growing up, I always found an excuse for a party. At fourteen I had built up the confidence to have friends around when my parents were out/ away, and these ‘gatherings’ quickly evolved beyond a few mates to crowds from all over Oxford knowing that my house could be counted on for a good time. I’m pretty sure my parents knew more than they let on, with the occasional broken window, guitar or neighbours’ complaints surely being sufficient to raise alarm bells. They certainly knew about one particular party – bells jangling as a friend smashed the security glass on our alarm system, which calls direct to the fire department (had to come clean on that one). This party had been a May Day celebration. May Day being one of my favourite Oxford celebrations.
One reason May Day is great for throwing a party is that there is an end time, something else to go on to. So you can let things escalate up to a point, but at 4.30 am everyone leaves to go into the centre of Oxford, to mingle with drunk students (straight out of their May balls) and morris dancers, while we watch the choir sing at the top of Magdalen tower, all a part of the cities public celebrations. Often we go via the festivities in Port Meadow where there is usually a bonfire to be found and borrowing from the Gaelic Beltane traditions, we wash our faces in the morning dew (this supposedly will give us eternal beauty).
May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries, associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility (of the soil, livestock, and people) and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. Planting is usually finished and the labourers traditionally had a day off. In the UK, traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include crowning a May Queen and dancing around a Maypole.
Much of this tradition derives from the pagan Anglo-Saxon customs held during the fertile and rich month of “Þrimilci-mōnaþ” (Thremilce), the Old English name for May, meaning Month of Three Milkings, along with many Celtic traditions.
The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, held on April 27 during the Roman Republic era, and with the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane, most commonly held on April 30. The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures.
As Europe became more Christian, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and May Day changed into secular celebrations, perhaps best known for their traditions of dancing around the maypole and crowning the May Queen. Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of “May baskets,” small baskets of sweets or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbours’ doorsteps.
A maypole is a tall wooden pole erected as a part of various European folk festivals, around which a maypole dance often takes place.The symbolism of the maypole has been continuously debated by folklorists for centuries, although no definitive answer has been found. Some scholars classify maypoles as symbols of the world axis (axis mundi). Non-Germanic people have viewed them as having phallic symbolism.
The rise of Protestantism in the 16th century led to increasing disapproval of maypoles and other May Day practices from various Protestants who viewed them as idolatry and therefore immoral. That royal support contributed to the outlawing of maypole displays and dancing during the English Interregnum. The Long Parliament’s ordinance of 1644 described maypoles as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.”
In the countryside, May dances and maypoles appeared even during the Interregnum, but the practice was revived substantially and joyously after the Restoration. By the 19th century, the maypole had been subsumed into the symbology of “Merry England”. The addition of intertwining ribbons seems to have been influenced by a combination of 19th-century theatrical fashion and visionary individuals such as Oxford’s, John Ruskin in the 19th century. However, the maypole remained an anti-religious symbol to some theologians, as shown by “The Two Babylons”, an anti-Catholic conspiracist pamphlet that first appeared in 1853.
Historically, Morris dancing has been linked to May Day celebrations. Morris dance is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins. Implements such as sticks, swords and handkerchiefs may also be wielded by the dancers.
In Oxford, Morris dancers perform regularly in the lead up to May celebrations, and on the day itself, it is possible to share pints of ale with a dance troupe in the early hours of the morning. It is traditional for May Morning revellers to gather below the Great Tower of Magdalen College at 6 am to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals as a conclusion to the previous night’s revelry. It is traditional for some people to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell.
Whitstable, Kent, also hosts a good example of more traditional May Day festivities, where the Jack in the Green festival was revived in 1976 and continues to lead an annual procession of morris dancers through the town on the May bank holiday. A separate revival occurred in Hastings in 1983 and has become a major event in the town calendar. A traditional sweeps festival is performed over the May bank holiday in Rochester, Kent, where the Jack in the Green is woken at dawn on May 1 by Morris dancers.
Padstow in Cornwall holds its annual Obby-Oss (Hobby Horse) day of festivities on May Day. This is believed to be one of the oldest fertility rites in the UK; revellers dance with the Oss through the streets of the town and even through the private gardens of the citizens, accompanied by accordion players and followers dressed in white with red or blue sashes who sing the traditional “May Day” song.
I lived in Soctland for five years while I was a student. While I was there, we celebrated May Day with the Beltane Fire Festival. This is held on the evening of May eve and into the early hours of May Day on the city’s Calton Hill. An older Edinburgh tradition has it that young women who climb Arthur’s Seat and wash their faces in the morning dew will have lifelong beauty.
Beltane marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire or between two bonfires and sometimes leap over the flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. These gatherings would be accompanied by a feast. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers.
Beltane (the beginning of summer) and Samhain (the beginning of winter) are thought to have been the most important of the four Gaelic festivals. Sir James George Frazer wrote in The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion that the times of Beltane and Samhain are of little importance to European crop-growers, but of great importance to herdsmen. Thus, he suggests that halving the year at 1 May and 1 November dates from a time when the Celts were mainly a pastoral people, dependent on their herds.
Bonfires continued to be a key part of the festival in the modern era. All hearth fires and candles would be doused before the bonfire was lit, generally on a mountain or hill. Food was also cooked at the bonfire and there were rituals involving it. Alexander Carmichael wrote that there was a feast featuring lamb, and that this lamb was sacrificed. In 1769, Thomas Pennant wrote that, in Perthshire, a caudle made from eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk was cooked on the bonfire. Some of the mixture was poured on the ground as a libation. Everyone present would then take an oatmeal cake, called the bannoch Bealltainn or “Beltane bannock”. A bit of it was offered to the spirits to protect their livestock (one bit to protect the horses, one bit to protect the sheep, and so forth) and a bit was offered to each of the animals that might harm their livestock (one to the fox, one to the eagle, and so forth).
Since 1988, a Beltane Fire Festival has been held every year during the night of 30 April on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland. While inspired by traditional Beltane, this festival is a modern arts and cultural event which incorporates myth and drama from a variety of world cultures and diverse literary sources.
Photos by Anna Bruce