Sunday, May 1, 2011

May Day Past and Present - A Repeat Performance

This post previously appeared on this blog.

Traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen, and celebrations involving a Maypole (see picture at left). 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 picture 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 all work and no play Puritan government of Oliver Cromwell suppressed Whitsun Ales or anything else that would cause people to smile. With the restoration of Charles II, a man who knew the value of keeping his people happy since unhappy people had cut off his father's head, 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 6.00 a.m. to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals as a conclusion to the previous night’s celebrations. It has become a tradition for some people, properly lubricated, 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.

Morris Dancers with Hobby Horse
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.

So find a maypole or erect your own and celebrate May Day!

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

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