Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day - Past and Present

Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen, and celebrations involving a Maypole (see picture at right). Much of this tradition derives from the pagan Anglo-Saxon customs held in May, then known as the Month of Three Milkings. Before the English Civil War, the working peasantry took part in morris dances (see pictures below), especially at Whitsun (aka, Pentecost). In 1600, the Shakespearean actor William Kempe, morris danced from London to Norwich, an event chronicled in his Nine Days Wonder. The Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell, a notorious party suppressed Whitsun Ales and other such festivities (like all of them). When the crown was restored by Charles II, a real party animal, the springtime festivals were restored. In particular, Whitsun Ales came to be celebrated on Whitsunday, as the date coincided with the birthday of Charles II.

In Oxford, it is traditional for May Morning revelers to gather below the Great Tower of Magdalen College at 6.00am to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals as a conclusion to the previous night’s celebrations. It is then thought to be traditional for some people to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell. In Durham, students of the University of Durham gather on Prebend’s Bridge to see the sunrise and enjoy festivities, folk music, dancing, madrigal singing and a barbecue breakfast.

Padstow in Cornwall holds its annual Obby-Oss (Hobby Horse) day of festivities. This is believed to be one of the oldest fertility rites in the UK. Revelers dance with the Oss through the streets of the town accompanied by accordion players and followers dressed in white with red or blue sashes who sing the traditional May Day song. Prior to the 19th century distinctive May day celebrations were widespread throughout West Cornwall , and are being revived in St. Ives and Penzance.

Mayfair, a posh part of London, is named after the annual fortnight-long May Fair that took place on the site that is Shepherd Market today (from 1686 until it was banned in that location in 1764). Until 1686, the May Fair was held in Haymarket, and after 1764, it moved to Fair Field in Bow because the well-to-do residents of the area felt the fair lowered the tone of the neighborhood.

Most of this post was gleaned from Wikipedia and on-line sources.


  1. Hi Mary,
    Just read your post about mummers and May Day celebrations in England.

    There are also mummers celebrations at Easter too. I took a whole load of pictures of mummers performing on Wimbledon Green outside of the Crooked Billett and the Hand in Hand pubs about three years ago. The crowd watching comprised of some of my family and many of my friends. The lead mummer was the parent of children at my school at the time. A couple of the younger mummers I had taught.

    I'll post some pictures on my BLOG later and give everybody the Wikapaedia link you used.

    Thanks for this Mary. The weather is rather wet at the moment here. I'm not sure the mummers were out on Wimbledon Common yesterday.

  2. Are mummers and morris dancers the same? Because we have (or maybe we once had) a mummer's day parade in Phila. involving lots of straw. Being of Irish Catholic descent, it was not part of my tradition, but it was interesting to watch.

  3. Yes, I have made the two words, mummers and, morris men, synonymous.

    There is a difference. The morris men perform the dancing and the mummers act the plays.

    There is a mix of paganism and chritianity within what they do.

    Much is about the rites of Spring and new growth but there are stories of St George and the Dragon
    and and some of the Medieval Mystery Plays that used to be performed in market squares to tell the bible stories to the people of the time.

    The mummers were traditonally men but probably nowadays they let girls and women perfrom too. We have a tradition of pantomimes in this country. Men dress as women and women dress as men.This comes from the mummers. Also there is a link to medieval/Tudor times,when women were not allowed to act.It was seen as a profession close to prostitution for women. Shakespeares plays were originally acted with young men taking the female roles.

    I am Roman Catholic too by the way Mary.However things like this are pure entertainment and they are carrying on traditons with good honest meanings behind them. I don't see them as a threat to Christianty. Some ultra right christians don't agree with things like halloween or the Harry Potter stories , which is a shame. They should lighten up.

    RIGHT, I'll get off my soap box now. Have a geat day Mary. I've probably made all that sound as clear as mud.