Mayday was a rite of passage custom that marked an important seasonal transition in the year. Putting a maypole up involved taking a growing tree from the wood, and bringing it to the village to mark the oncoming season of the summer. Mayday used to be a period of great sexual licence. People would go off into the woods to collect their trees and green boughs, but once there, would enter into all sorts of temporary sexual liaisons which society did not normally accept.
Why isn't it like that now? It was tamed and redirected. In the seventeenth century, Mayday "The Great Rite" came under severe attack by the bloody puritans who banned it and made it illegal by an act of Parliament in 1644. In Philip Stubbe's "Anatomy of Abuses", which was a puritan tract against all kinds of merrymaking, there is a section called 'Against May', where he actually tries to measure the degree of sexual licence. "Every parish town and village assemble themselve's together. Men and women and children, old and young and go off, some to the woods and groves, some to the hills and mountains, where they
spend the night in pastimes. In the morning they return bringing with them birch-boughs and trees to deck their assemblies withal. I've
heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity, credibility and reputation. That forty, three score, or a hundred youths, going to the
woods over night. They have scarcely the third part of them, returned
home again undefiled."
The Puritans also objected to May Day and other festivals, because of the way social hierarchy was set aside, so that all were commonly involved, from the highest to the lowest. The Puritans found this
offensive much preferring strict gradations in society. May day did return with the restoration of Charles the second in 1660, but it didn't have the same robust force. It had the same old image, but the elements of sexual licence and social reversal went underground.
In the nineteenth century, the Victorians overlayed a much more moral tone on the festival, emphasising its innocence. Instead of being a celebration of fertility, it turned into a kind of commemoration of Merri England. The girls taking part now wore white and held posies.
What has this cleaning up done to the image of May Day today? For the past sixty years folklorists have been rediscovering the Pagan fertility tradition, with it's myths, rites and sexual licence. Some
say this has over shadowed the way in which May and other customs have been rooted in an economic way of life. May garlands, for example embodied the coming of summer, but they also embodied the knocking on doors around the parish and asking for money. At other times of the
year begging would have been an offence. But if it was done at May time with a garland, or collecting money for the Guy, or wassailing at Christmas, it would have a powerful legitimation. Also the taking of
the tree for the may pole highlighted the rights of the people to take wood freely for fuel. This confirms the extensive medieval rights to wood usage, including the taking of wood, both growing timber for
building and repairs and dead wood for fuel.
Why did the Labour Movement choose May Day as International Labour Day? It's more that May Day chose the Labour Movement. Unlike Easter, Whitsun or Christmas, May Day is the one festival of the year for which there is no significant church service (the only one that they didn't nab). Because of this it has always been a strong secular festival, particularly among working people who in previous centuries would take the day off to celebrate it as a holiday, often clandestinely without the support of their employer. It was a popular custom, in the proper sense of the word - a people's day - so it was
naturally identified with the Labour and socialist movements and by the twentieth century it was firmly rooted as part of the socialist calendar. It's only recently that the state has recognised May Day as
a bank holiday for the first time since it had royal support back in the Elizabethan court, and there's been a big battle over this May Day which was seized upon by the Right as something foreign and left-wing. But this entirely misses the continuity of its roots in our cultural tradition.
Beltane: a Pre-Christian Fire Festival
"But they are... naked!"
"Well, naturally, it's far too dangerous to jump through the fire with your clothes on!"
--Lord Summerisle explaining Beltane to Sergeant Howie in the 1973 film "The Wicker Man"
The holiday was also known as "Roodmass" in England and "Walpurgisnacht" in Germany. Alternately spelled Bealtaine, Beltaine, and any number of Gaelic derived-spellings, it is also the Irish word for the month of May, and is said to mean anything from "Bel-fire" Feast of the god Bel" to "bright fire."
Fire festivals in ancient times were seen as times of propitiation and purification. Propitiation, "means sacrifice; to propitiate the mysterious forces of nature and ensure fertility in field and fold and on the hearth."
"You'll simply never understand the true nature of sacrifice."
--May Morrison to Sergeant Howie, "The Wicker Man"
As for purification, fire has always been seen as its chief agent. Traditionally, all domestic fires in Irish, English and Scottish households were extinguished on Beltane Eve, after having been kept lit continuously all year. Just before dawn, villagers would processwith their animals up the hillsides to the highest point where fires would be kindled and relit for people to see for miles around.
In Oxford on May Day there are parties everywhere, people stay up all night and the pubs are allowed to open till sunrise and beyond. The festivities really begin at 6am in the morning and everyone has a bloody good time. Morris dancers entertain the crowds making their way home from balls and all-night parties. Parties in Port Meadow are divine.
Oxford's May morning celebrations begin when the choir sings from the top of Magdalen College tower at 06:00 BST (05:00 GMT).
Oxford's May Morning singing started to celebrate the completion of Magdalen College tower in 1509. Jumping off Magdalen Bridge in full evening dress is also a cherished part of Oxford's May morning
tradition. However since 2001 barriers prevent anyone jumping into the shallow water and worse still since 2003 the event will be alcohol-free: there's now a ban on drinks in the area and revelers
will be asked to put glasses and cans in "amnesty bins". My god what mediocrity we have become?
The Oxfordshire village of Charlton-on-Otmoor has its own unique May Day celebration. Local children have a procession to the church, carrying a rope-like garland of leaves and flowers and each holding a
small cross of flowers. The church has a cross covered with foliage,which is renewed on May Day and September 19.
Trees used to dance down the street on May Day in Oxford, Deddington,Bampton and Chiselhampton, as well as in other counties. They were actually tall conical frames covered in foliage, called Jack-in-the-green. One jack tradition ended when a prankster set the greenery on fire and the man inside burned to death. The tradition has been revived by Oxford University Morris Men (without the burning
Children's garland processions were one of the most popular May Day celebrations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The tradition continues in Bampton, Wheatley and Lower Heyford. (The Bampton
tradition survives, but at Whitsun). One of the best descriptions of garland celebrations is in Flora Thompson's famous Lark Rise, recalling her childhood in Juniper Hill, near Bicester. Some villages
had their own special May Day carols, describing how everyone's been out gathering may bushes. One survives from Swalcliffe, near Banbury -noted in 1921 when children sang it as they marched through the village.
May Day has become a day of protest against capitalism around the world - but uproar is nothing new. In London, 14 people were hung, drawn and quartered after May Day riots in 1517. Another 400 were
spared when Henry VIII took pity on them. They already had the nooses round their necks.
Early descriptions of May Day tell how people went "a-maying", gathering branches of may through the night and using them to decorate homes and streets.
The Puritan cleric Stubbes claimed maying was an excuse for lewd behaviour in the woods. "Of fortie, threescore of a hundred maides going to the wood overnight," he wrote, "there have scareceley the
thirde parte of them returned home againe undefiled."
The uptight puritanical blokes and blokesses that England banished (so that they could continue with a Happy Pagan May Fest perhpas?) resurfaced years later in the land of the free (home of the brave?).
Bringing in the may was banned when Cromwell ruled England. Probably his vain attempt to make England a non-pagan country.
The Puritans destroyed hundreds of semi-permanent maypoles. The best-documented case was at Neithrop in Banbury in 1589. The row about it went all the way to the Privy Council. The same Puritans destroyed Banbury's crosses in 1600.
A proposal has been made to erect a new maypole in Banbury, covered in foliage in the traditional English style - possibly as part of plans to pedestrianise the market place.
Horses used to be decorated with ribbons, flowers and brasses on May Day and paraded through towns and villages.
Famous May Day celebrations in the West Country feature outlandish hobby horses - none of which look like horses. Padstow's are circular and covered in tar, while Minehead's are boat-shaped and covered in ribbons. It's said they were originally used to scare away invaders off the coast.
Washing in dew gathered on May morning was widely believed to improve the complexion.
May dew was also believed to cure sore eyes. People in Launceston, in Cornwall, were told to heal swollen necks with May dew gathered from the grave of a young person of the opposite sex. Some people in north-west England used to play April Fool tricks in May.
Victims were called May goslings. Anyone who tried it after midday was taunted with a rhyme:
May Gosling's dead and gone
You're the fool for thinking on
Maypole dances that involve plaiting ribbons were invented as part of the Victorians' whimsical recreation of "Merrie England". Proper English maypoles had hoops, wreaths or spirals of foliage, but no ribbons. With no ribbons to weave, dancers just used to kiss instead.
May Queen customs became all the rave after Tennyson's poem, The May Queen, was published in 1832. Before then May celebrations were often presided over by adults known as the Lord and Lady. They also appeared at Whitsun ales - boozy celebrations that were a popular part of the morris-dancing tradition. Superstition once said that cats born in May were useless and should be drowned, and that May babies were weakly and unlikely to thrive. It also said boys born in May would be cruel
to animals. Such as May-born kittens, perhaps...
May weddings were once considered unlucky - yet it's one of the most popular times to get married.
Oxford celebrates the first of May on the wrong day, according to some. A switch between the Gregorian and Julian calendars a few centuries back means the original May Day now falls on May 13 - when it is still celebrated in some parts.
In Padstow in Cornwall many meet for the annual May Day celebrations. Thousands of people make the journey to Padstow on the 1st May to celebrate one of the oldest May Day traditions in the country.
The colours mixed with the passion of Padstownians makes the traditional 'Obby 'Oss day celebrations a guaranteed memorable occasion.
The Chairman of the Padstow Old Cornwall Society, Rev Barry Kinsman, says it is a very special day.
"It is a celebration that is totally spontaneous," he says. "It's like summer is bursting into life. The whole community is vibrant today and very much alive."
May Day in Padstow officially begins at midnight, when a groups of 'mayers' meet outside the Golden Lion Inn to serenade the owner with their Night Song:
Rise up, Mr. Rickard, and joy to you betide, For summer is a-come in
today; And bright is your bride, that lays down by your side In the
merry morning of May.
Time to wake-up, nobody sleeps much on May Day.
As the sun rises over Padstow on 1st May each year the streets will
busy with people putting the finishing touches to shop windows
choosing colours to support their chosen 'Oss.
The old streets, rich in history, will be ablaze with bluebells,
forget-me-nots, cowslips, and sycamore twigs.
Early in the morning on the 1st May the streets of Padstow come alive
with the traditional May Day song and its hypnotic tune.
Unite and unite let us all unite,
For summer is acome unto day,
And whither we are going we will all unite,
In the merry morning of May.
The children from Padstow's schools will be beating away on their drums providing the all important rhythm for the Children's 'Oss. The youngsters enthusiasm continues through until 10am.
Throughout the day the hypnotic sound of the May Day Song is heard in the narrow streets.
Trevor Morris from Litchfield in the Midlands travels to Padstow for the first day of May every year.
"It's a lovely day for Padstownians," said Trevor in 2003. "I was reading a book the other day about the First World War. On the 1st May with all the fighting two Padstownians were dancing in the trenches
because it was May Day."
The tension starts to mount again mid-morning for the appearance of the Blue 'Oss also known as the Peace 'Oss.
The Peace 'Oss is led by a teaser and many dancers. They dress in white with blue sashes showing their support for the 'Oss.
One hour later the Old 'Oss emerges to massive cheers from the crowd. The hypnotic beat continues throughout the day as the crowd sing the traditional May Day song.
In 1889, an international Socialists meeting in Paris voted to make May Day a memorial to the struggle of working people throughout the world.The date was chosen in honour of four men who died three years earlier trying to further workers' rights in the US. The US Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions had passed a resolution stating that eight hours would constitute a legal day's work from and after 1 May 1886. But during a mass workers' strike in Chicago on May 3rd police fired into the crowd killing four protesters. The situation worsened a few days later when a bomb was thrown at police during a demonstration to commemorate the workers' deaths in Chicago's Haymarket Square. A number of anarchists were later rounded up and, despite a lack of evidence connecting any of them with the bomb, they were found guilty and executed.
At the May Day pageant in Siloam, Greene County, Georgia
May queen and maypole dance at May Day-Health Day festivities at Irwinville Farms, Georgia
Queen of the May
May Day festivities at Forest Glen, Md.
May Day at Baldwin College, 1907
May Day Parade, N.Y. 1910
Parades - 1914, May Day parade, New York
N.Y. May Day parade - Strikers' children from Paterson