‘If you come a-maying, a-straying, a-playing,
We will pluck the little
flowers, enough for you and me;
And when the day dies, end our one day’s
Give a kiss and take a kiss and go home free.’
With the approach of May, when the land seems suddenly filled with the blossoms of springtime, the towns and villages of Britain are busy completing the preparations for their annual May Day Festivals.
“And furth goth all the Court, both most and lest,
To feche the flouresfressh, and braunche and blome;
And namly, hawthorn brought both page and grome.
With fressh garlandes, partie blewe and whyte,
And thaim rejoysen in their greet delyt.”
Countless young girls are eagerly looking forward to the great moment when, as MAY QUEEN, they will ride to their crowning in a chariot decked with spring flowers. Then with the garlanded and gaily painted Maypole set up in its accustomed position on the green (or even in the street), they will preside over the traditional dances and festivities which celebrate the arrival of ‘THE GLADDEST TIME OF THE YEAR’.
“The May Queen”
J. C. Horsley
Engraved by W. J. Linton
The ancient Celts and Druids celebrated Beltane [which means ‘day of fire’]‘ in honour of the Sun God Bel at the beginning of the Spring and the first spring planting. The Saxons made the eve before (the last day of April) their festival time. From the 12th to 15th centuries many towns and cities had Maypoles so tall and heavy they had to be buried deeply in the ground and they remained standing throughout the year and only on May Day were they decorated with flower crowns, ribbons and streamers. In most villages at dawn young men and women would go into the forest, the young men to choose a tree, strip it of it’s branches (all but the top) and carry it to the village green ready for erection, decoration and the day’s celebrations. Meanwhile the young women would be gathering flowers, greenery, ribbons and streamers to garland the Maypole and anyone or anything else involved on the MayDay where the chosen Queen of the May would preside over the events and feasts.
Maypole dancing then involved young men and women holding ribbons and weaving in and out with no definite pattern and lingering to kiss on the way.Social hierarchy was set aside on May Day to involve everyone from the highest to the lowest.
May Day is a celebration of fertility. In the old days whole villages would go to the woods and all sorts of temporary sexual liaisons would take place. Robin Goodfellow, also known as the Green Man was the Lord of Misrule on May Day. He and his supporters would make jokes and poke fun at the local authorities. [Echoes of Roman winter celebrations].
In the 1600′s MayDay celebrations and processions were banned by Oliver Cromwell as being pagan and sinful but in some parts of England villages were still celebrating. It wasn’t until 1660 with the restoration of King Charles II that MayDay celebrations and festivities were in full swing after the severity of the Puritan regime. Queen Victoria’s subjects re-invented the MayDay Traditions under the guise of ‘Merrie England Festivals’ Maypole Dancing became more intricate and patterns and plaiting of the ribbons whilst dancing was imported from Europe in the 1880′s. A favourite with young girls at that time was to cover a garland in flowers and ribbons to be held by two of the girls, another to carry a doll in a box covered with a cloth. They would go from house to house asking the inhabitants if they would like to see the ‘May Baby’ – this of course was for a contribution of money.
This garland has evolved in our procession into the Hoop Garland held by two girls over the May Queen and Prince when they leave the Common after the Crowning Ceremony. The decorated ‘cage’ on a pole carried at the rear of the procession depicts the cage carrying the ‘May Baby’ (this custom is believed to have started when Cromwell banned May Day processions and the collection of money – people paid to see the doll). In Cornwall at Helston they hold Floral Day (more correctly Flora Day). One of the oldest surviving customs in the Country- a mayday celebration to mark the coming of spring and the passing of winter
Unlike Easter, Whitsun, or Christmas, May Day is the one festival of the year which christianity has not “borrowed” from pagan times for its own practice. In previous centuries working people would take the day off to celebrate, often without the support of their employer. May Day is recognized throughout the world as International Workers’ Day and was declared a holiday by the International Working Men’s Association (First International) in Paris in 1889.
The USA does not recognise May Day. However the Chicago riots of the 19th century and the Haymarket martyrs are still remembered. The US government attempted to erase LABOUR DAY from its history by declaring that May 1st was ‘Law Day’ instead. This a rank idealogical decision from a country that encourages freedom of speech among the prolateriat of other sovereign nations, reeks of hypocrisy.
So worker’s of the world unite against your capitalist masters. Or go dance around a maypole !
‘Siker this morrow, no longer ago,
I saw a shole of shepherds outgo
With singing, and shouting, and jolly cheer;
Before them yode a lusty Tabrere,
That to the many a horn-pipe play’d,
Where to they dance each one with his maid.
To see these folks make such jouissance,
Made my heart after the pipe to dance.
Then to the greenwood they speeden them all,
To fetchen home May with their musical:
And home they bring him in a royal throne
Crowned as king; and his queen attone
Was Lady Flora, on whom did attend
A fair flock of fairies, and a fresh bend
Of lovely nymphs—0 that I were there
To helpen the ladies their May-bush to bear!
Shepherd’s Calendar, Eclogue 5.