Now is the month of Maying…

May is a spring month in the northern hemisphere and an autumn month in the southern hemisphere. For us up in ‘the north’, May holds the promise of warmer and sunnier days ahead, with green land stretching for miles beneath a clear blue sky. Oh, and lots of colourful flowers and singing birds… Of course, the reality can be totally different, but we live in hope.

The month has a number of traditions and celebrations attached to it, many of which – in the UK – have now been moved to the first Monday of the month, which is not always the 1st of May. The day has been a bank holiday in the UK since 1978, when the labour government introduced it to the national calendar. So most people have an extra day off work or school.

The earliest May Day celebrations are thought to have taken place during the Roman era when youths would celebrate the coming of spring with a day of dancing dedicated to the goddess Flora. There are several pictures of Flora on Wikipedia, but not all are particularly modest … so I thought I’d better stick to this one:

Roman fresco from Stabiae, close to Pompeii, from villa di Arianna, called Cosiddetta Flora. Ist century. Now in Naples Archaeological Museum. Public Domain. Photographer Marie-Lan Nguven

Many folklore customs in the UK have their roots  back in the time of the ancient Celts, whose year was divided by four major festivals. Beltane – ‘the fire of Bel ’ – was very important to the Celts as it represented the first day of summer. It was celebrated with bonfires to welcome in the new season and is still celebrated today in some areas. In Edinburgh on the night of April 30th, they hold the Edinburgh Fire Festival at Calton Hill, to celebrate the Beltane Fire Festival.

Over the centuries, May Day became associated with fun, revelry and fertility. The Day would see village folk cavorting round the maypole, the selection of the May Queen and Jack-in-the-Green dancing at the head of the procession. (Jack is thought to be a relic from the days when our ancient ancestors worshipped trees.)

Due to its pagan origins, and what would be classed as unacceptable and ‘unseemly’ behaviour by the people, over the years the Church has endeavoured to stop this type of celebration. This was particularly true in more puritanical times, including the years following the Civil War in England when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans controlled the country (the Interregnum, 1649-1660). One form of celebrating, dancing round the maypole, was described as heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness. Legislation was passed  to ban village maypoles throughout the country and dancing did not return to village greens until the restoration of Charles II in 1660.

Morris dancers with pipe and taborer. 1864, Chambers Book of Days. Author: Robert Chambers, editor. Public Domain

Today, May Day is celebrated with a number of events and activities intended to celebrate the end of winter and the start of the summer season. In some areas, May Fairs/Fayres are held. These usually involve a number of stalls for games and crafts, foods of various types and any number of items for sale. Face painters and people modelling balloons into a variety of animals and objects are also present.

I took these photos of a poster in the village of Collingham (two miles from where I live) on Saturday. It’s advertising the May Fair on Monday, which I’m planning to attend. Unfortunately, it seems there’ll be no maypole this year although the list of attractions looks promising, if it doesn’t pour down!

In Collingham, as in many villages, the May Fair was traditionally held on the village green. The fair in Collingham grew to be such a large event that a few years ago it was moved to the cricket ground, which is where I’ll be heading tomorrow.

Major traditional May Day events include maypole dancing, Morris dancing and the crowning of the May Queen:

Maypole dancing involves dancing around a tall pole from which ribbons are suspended. The dancers are generally children or, more traditionally, just girls. The aim is to create a decorative pattern on the pole with the ribbons. Nowadays, it is often schools who organise this event. The maypole dancing in the following video took place at Greenfield’s Junior School’s Summer Fair in 2010, in the village of Hartley Wintney in Hampshire. It shows the children making interesting designs with the ribbons. The video was uploaded to YouTube by Craig Arnush.

Morris dancing is another event associated with May Day, traditionally performed by men. The dancers often dress in white, with bells on parts of their costumes, and carry white handkerchiefs and/or long wooden sticks, depending on the regional customs and requirements of the dance. The dancing is to the accompaniment of loud accordion music.

Cotswold-style Morris dancing in the grounds of Wells Cathedral, England (Exeter Morris Men. Author: Adrian Pingstone, July 2006. Public Domain.

There are several thoughts on the origins of Morris dancing, one being that the word Morris comes from the word Moorish or morisco – a derogatory term for little Moor. The fact that Morris dancers often painted their faces black has been used to substantiate that idea. However, there is no evidence that the dance came from the Moors. Another suggestion is that Morris dancing could be linked to pagan rites to celebrate the coming of spring – during which time the dancers would blacken their faces.

The earliest reference to Morris dancing in England is 1448. It is possible that this type of dancing originated in 15th century courts across Europe, when a dance called moreys daunce  (Moorish Dancebecame common. For this, the dancers wore colourful costumes with bells attached. By the 16th century, Morris dancing had become  a part of many Church festivals, and later that century, a regular feature of village fetes. By the 18th century, Morris dancing became linked to the Whitsun ales. (Whitsun, or Whitsuntide, is the Christian festival of Pentecost, on the 7th Sunday after Easter.) Parish ale was brewed by the Church for use in both seasonal and sacramental services, including weddings, christenings, funerals/wakes – and Whitsun.

Despite a big decline in the 19th century, due to many new forms of entertainment, Morris dancing has seen a big revival for several decades now. Perhaps it’s just a renewal of  interest in traditions and all things past. This YouTube video shows a Morris dance in which the dancers use white handkerchiefs. It was uploaded by Avi Roy.

The May Queen or Queen of May is a personification of the May Day holiday, and of springtime and summer, and the crowning of the May Queen is an important part of May day activities. The young lady chosen usually feels honoured and proud to hold that title. She has been chosen from amongst the local and unmarried young women  and crowned with greenery – traditionally including May blossom (hawthorn blossom) shown in my ‘header’ above. Many Roman Catholic parishes hold  a May crowning, dedicated to Mary, Mother of Jesus. 

This is how Wikipedia describes the role of the May Queen:

Today the May Queen is a girl who must ride or walk at the front of a parade for May Day celebrations. She wears a white gown to symbolise  purity and usually a tiara or crown. Her duty is to begin the May Day celebrations. She is generally crowned by flowers and makes a speech before the dancing begins.

There are too many traditions to talk about here, but an interesting one includes the men of the village celebrating with Jack-in-the-Green (often believed to be the same as the Green Man). A hobby horse also features in some celebrations in southern England:

Painting of Morris dancers along the Thames near Richmond, c 1620. Now in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Source: http://www.themorrisring.org/more/preRef.html
Public Domain

In Oxford, May Day events start at 6 am with the 500-year-old tradition of the Magdalen (pronounced Maudlyn) College Choir singing a Latin hymn from the top of  the college tower. After this, college bells signal the start of the Morris dancing in the streets below.

Magdalen College on May Day morning, 2007. Author: Romanempire at English Wikipedia. Creative Commons

Finally, on a less festive note, May 1 in the UK has become associated with May Day Marches,  particularly in  London. These are mostly organised by the trade unions and aim to celebrate and demand rights for workers.

Tomorrow, Nick and I will be taking ourselves off to the Collingham May Day Fair. I hope to share some photos of it soon after.

Refs:
1. Various Wikipedia sites
2. https://www.timeanddate.com/holidays/uk/early-may-bank-holiday
3. http://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/May-Day-Celebrations/
4. http://metro.co.uk/2010/04/30/a-history-of-may-day-why-do-we-celebrate-it-275721/\
5. http://www.rattlejagmorris.org.uk/history-of-morris-dancing

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About milliethom

I am a reader and writer of historical fiction with a keen interest in the Earth's history and all it involves, both physically and socially. I like nothing better than to be outdoors, especially in faraway places, and baking is something I do when my eyes need respite from my computer screen.
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29 Responses to Now is the month of Maying…

  1. Singledust says:

    lovely Millie, so different from what I see on the equator, this was lots of new information for me, just lovely!

    • milliethom says:

      Thank you Gina. I can imagine how different May is in the UK to your part of the world. Here, May is sometimes warm but other times, temperatures stay down and/or we get a lot of rain. This year, it’s quite variable, so we don’t know what we’ll get from day to day. The traditions of May Day are interesting and the day can be a lot of fun .

  2. maddmombetty says:

    So interesting! Always wondered… May is my birth month!

    • milliethom says:

      Hello, Betty! It’s lovely to see you again, as I thought you’d stopped blogging a while ago. I haven’t been on my blog for the past month, so I thought I ought to make an effort to write a post before people thought I’d completely disappeared. I hope your health has improved a lot since we last spoke and that you have a wonderful birthday. Both my mum and dad had their birthdays in May. Take care of yourself.

      • maddmombetty says:

        Thanks! Yes, I took an extended hiatus from blogging, but I’m back with a new purpose. You can read about it on my wellness Wednesday blog. I’m also doing a Scripture Sunday one. That’s all I’m doing at this time. I got sick and life got busy, but I’m doing much better now!

  3. Very interesting. In NZ they are more like England. Unfortunately, we can’t do May-day as summer because we start winter then.

    • milliethom says:

      Do you have any spring festivals in November instead in NZ, Ineke? I imagine that would be a good time for maypoles and such like, and I’ve seen pictures of maypoles in all the countries where British and other European people settled years ago. Spring is worth celebrating after all, especially after a long dreary winter. Hope all is well with you. I’ve been off my blog for a month, so I’m out of touch with everyone.

      • Yes we have Spring Festivals everywhere in September. Each city and town has something going in spring. All is usually real English games and such stuff. We are all okay after some very bad weather in April just before the holidays. We are now waiting for winter which was on our doorstep this morning with 0 degrees! Hope you are also well and ready for warmer weather. Are you going to visit some special places this summer?

      • milliethom says:

        I’m afraid we’ve cancelled all holidays this year, Ineke, and won’t be going very far at all. Our eldest daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer almost two months ago and we need to be close by to help her through all the treatment. Perhaps we’ll get away next year. Hope your winter is a mild one. I know you’ve had some hard ones in recent years.

  4. Michael says:

    May has not had the same significance to me as it does to you..it is Autumn here and the days are getting cooler, which is fine by me after a long hot summer….I’ve always been intrigued by the May Day celebrations which are not so common here, why celebrate the coming winter??
    I think the May day celebrations in my part of the world have been more Union based than the traditional notion. Anyway Millie I enjoyed your blog as always, have a great day at Collingham, look forward to your photos..

    • milliethom says:

      I can understand that celebrating the coming of winter might not be such a good idea, although winter has its own charms. The main thing I dislike about winter is the shortness of the days. You mentioned the Unions, and marches organised by trade unions are common here too on May Day. Most are in London, although people from all over the country travel to take part. Thank you for the nice comment, Michael. I’ve been ‘off’ my blog for the last month, so I’m behind with everything.

  5. Looks like you’ve got lots going on in May! Morris dancing looks fun!

    • milliethom says:

      Thanks, Courtney. May Day can be a lot of fun and some areas make a lot more of it than others. We do love our old traditions in the UK! 🙂 I’ve been away from my blog for the last month, due to family concerns, but I’ll be sure to get over to your blog as soon as I’ve got back into my stride. I had a quick look and followed you – good luck with your upcoming book.

  6. draliman says:

    I’m celebrating May bank holiday by hiding inside from the rain and gale force winds… 🙂

    • milliethom says:

      I’d seen on the weather forecast that Cornwall was in for a rough time today (weather-wise, I mean!). I hope the rain and gale-force winds weren’t as bad as expected and that you enjoyed your movies and computer games etc – or perhaps you got stuck into your baking. We’ve had a reasonable day today here, after a showery start. It was blustery, and the poor little May Queen looked freezing. 🙂

  7. arv! says:

    Lovely information. Out here it’s a labour day. May here in India means the month of scorching sun.

    • milliethom says:

      I think the theme of better rights for workers is pretty worldwide on May1st, Arv. We have similar marches here, too in London. The marches have become a definite feature of May Day, and quite different to the quaint traditions enjoyed at the same time. I’d like some of your scorching sun right now! Most of us here are ready for some nice weather.

      • arv! says:

        Scorching weather here is too much for the English skin who rarely see beyond 35C. I’m sure nice weather is Something that you’ll appreciate. ☺

  8. anroworld says:

    It was so interesting to read, dear Millie. In my country 1st of May is an official Labour Day off, which traditionally spent at gardens while planting potatoes…it might sound a bit weird, but Ukraine is an agricultural country where planting potatoes is almost ritual…

    • milliethom says:

      I think May 1st is Labour Day in a lot of places, Anne. As far as I know, it started in the US towards the end of the 19th century. Whether or not the Ukraine already celebrated Labour Day before that, I don’t know. In the UK, we have marches organised by trade unions on May 1st, but the day isn’t called Labour Day. Thank you for the interesting snippet about planting potatoes in the Ukraine. It makes sense in an agricultural country.

    • milliethom says:

      I think May 1st is Labour Day in a lot of places, Ann. As far as I know, it started in the US towards the end of the 19th century. Whether or not the Ukraine already celebrated Labour Day before that, I don’t know. In the UK, we have marches organised by trade unions on May 1st, but the day isn’t called Labour Day. Thank you for the interesting snippet about planting potatoes in the Ukraine. It makes sense in an agricultural country.

  9. Oh Millie, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post. 🙂 Here in South Africa it is called Workers Day where it is declared a Public Holiday. Workers Day here pays respect to the working class of the nation. It’s a peaceful day and a lot of people get to have the day off.
    Hope all is well with you and your family. Take care. 🙂

  10. milliethom says:

    Thank you for the lovely comment, Lynne. Several people from different countries have remarked about May 1st being Labour Day or Workers Day. Here we just have the workers marches in London, organised by trade unions I believe, but the May Day traditions go on. We do cling to our traditions and customs here! (Any excuse for a day of fun!)
    This is my first blog post for a month because of family illness. Were hoping for better days ahead. Hope all is well with you and your family, too. I’ll pop over to your blog tomorrow as it’s almost bedtime here and, at my age, I need all the beauty sleep I can get, 🙂

  11. Love your posts as always. I was very excited to see the photo of Cosiddetta Flora. I had the great pleasure of seeing the fresco at the museum in Naples. It was on a stand with several other works that you could rotate to view without having to walk around the table. I had spun the rack to view a few before Flora came into view. I think I squealed in excitement when I saw her. I had taken a fresco class and she was the image I had selected for my fresco. Seeing her in real life, with no barriers, no glass, in all of her 1st century splendor, was truly amazing. Thank you for another pleasant surprise.

    • milliethom says:

      I can imagine how amazed and awe-struck you were on seeing this fresco, Jo. We didn’t get round to visiting the museum when we visited Pompeii and Herculaneum. We were staying in Sorento, so we saw little of Naples, other than the airport! I’d love to go back and visit the museum next time.The frescoes are wonderful and I hope the one of Flora served you well for your work.

  12. I haven’t been posting much lately but glad to see you back! What wonderful traditions!

  13. Pingback: The Promise of May | Millie Thom

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