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British Culture, British Customs and British Traditions


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The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian Europe, although the pagan-oriented celebrations faded as Europe became Christianised, a more secular version of the holiday continued to be observed in the schools and churches of Europe well into the 20th century. In this form, In the UK May Day is best known for its traditions of dancing the Maypole and crowning of the Queen of the May.

May Day - May 1st

May Day ushers in the fifth month of the modern calendar year, the month of May. May Day celebrations and festivities were once the highlight of the year in every town and village through Britain. Although it is not as popular today as it once was, it seems to be enjoying something of a come back.

The month of May is named in honour of the goddess Maia, originally a Greek mountain nymph, later identified as the most beautiful of the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades. By Zeus, she was also the mother of Hermes, god of magic. Maia's parents were Atlas and Pleione, a sea nymph.

Also, 1 May 1707, was the day the Act of Union came into effect, joining England and Scotland to form the Kingdom of Great Britain. Although this isn't celebrated, especially not in Scotland.

The History of May Day

The old Celtic celebration of May Day was called Beltane, (or Beltaine in its most popular Anglicized form) the Celtic god of light or the sun (Bel, Beli or Belinus). He, in turn, may be traced to the Middle Eastern god Baal. Other names for May Day include: Cetsamhain ('opposite Samhain') and Walpurgisnacht (in Germany). For the Celts, Beltane was a festival where fires were set to mark the beginning of summer: "They rolled wheels of fire down hillsides, lit bonfires, and drove their cattle through the flames in a ceremony of purification".

Some people believe that the celebrations on May Day began with Beltane and the tree worship of the Druids. Others believe they go back to the spring festivals of ancient Egypt and India. However, May Day as it is celebrated today is more of a European import, believe it or not, from Italy. The people of ancient Rome honored Flora, the goddess of flowers and springtime, with a festival called Florialia. The goddess was represented by a small statue wreathed in garlands. A procession of singers and dancers carried the statue past a sacred blossom-decked tree. Later, festivals of this kind spread to other lands conquered by the Romans, and of course this included Britain.

As Europe became Christianized, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and either morphed into popular secular celebrations, as with May Day, or were given new Christian interpretations while retaining many traditional pagan features, as with Christmas, Easter, and All Saint's Day. Beginning in the 20th century, many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival once more.

These festivals reached their height in England during the Middle Ages. On the first day of May, English villagers awoke at daybreak to roam the countryside gathering blossoming flowers and branches. A towering maypole was set up on the village green. This pole, usually made of the trunk of a tall birch tree, was decorated with bright field flowers. The villagers then danced and sang around the maypole, accompanied by a piper. Usually the Morris dance was performed by dancers wearing bells on their colorful costumes. Often the fairest maiden of the village was chosen queen of the May. Sometimes a May king was also chosen. These two led the village dancers and ruled over the festivities. In Elizabethan times, the king and queen were called Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

May Day festivities became so much fun that in 1644 the Puritans attempted to make the celebrations illegal, banning even the making of Maypoles. They especially attempted to suppress the 'greenwood marriages' of young men and women who spent the entire night in the forest, staying out to greet the sunrise, and bringing back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next morning. One angry Puritan wrote, 'men doe use commonly to runne into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe.' And another Puritan complained that, of the girls who go into the woods, 'not the least one of them comes home again a virgin.'

Rudyard Kipling wrote about this custom:-

Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!

Eventually many of the customs made a come back and many of them are now practised all over England. I'm not sure about the 'greenwood marriages' though!

May Day Customs and Superstitions

The Maypole

Maypole

One popular Mayday custom was the making of a maypole. Early in the day the villagers would go to the nearest woodland and cut down a young tree. The tree (usually a tall birch tree) would be stripped of its branches except at the top (where the leaves symbolized new life) and dragged or carried to an open space in the town square or village green. It was then decorated with garlands of flowers and ribbons. Historians believe the cutting of the maypole was the villager's way of establishing their right to cut wood freely from the forest.

Traditionally the dancing was done by women but has now become a popular children's activity. Each child holds one of the coloured ribbons and circles the maypole with a hopping, skipping step. Some of the children dance in one direction while others dance the opposite way around the pole, changing their direction at carefully chosen moments. As they dance, the children pass each other until the ribbons are plaited together and wrapped tightly around the Maypole. When the circle is as small as it can be, the dance is reversed and the ribbons unwind until the dancers come back to their starting places.

The most famous Maypole in England was erected on the first May Day of Charles II reign in 1661. An enormous pole, 40 metres high, was floated up the Thames and erected in the Strand where it remained for almost 50 years. One of the oldest maypoles still in existence is at Hemswell in Lincolnshire where the ladder to the belfry in Castle Bytham Church bears this message "This ware the May Poul 1660".

Maypoles were usually set up for the day in small towns and villages as a centre point for the days celebrations, but in London and the larger towns they were erected permanently. Of course. they were considered heathen eyesores by the Puritans.

Morris Dancing

Morris Dancers

Morris dancing is a traditional English form of folk dance which is also performed in other English-speaking countries such as the USA and Australia. The roots of morris dancing seem to be very old, probably dating back to the Middle Ages. From around April and through the green summer months beribboned troupes of Morris Dancers will be seen in market towns and on village greens up and down the land. You are especially likely to see them performing their medieval dances to the click clack of their sticks and the sound of bells, pipes, and drums, around the month of May.

In the dance men dress up in costumes with hats and ribbons and bells around their ankles. They dance through the streets and one man often carries an inflated pigs bladder on the end of a stick. He will run up to young women in the street and hit them over the head with the pigs bladder, this is supposed to be lucky!

Jack in the Green ( The Cylenchar - The Hidden One)

Jack in the Green

Across rural England the key symbol of May Day is fresh spring growth, and the general hope is for a fertile harvest. Traditionally villagers would disguise one of their number as Jack-in-the-Green by enshrouding him with a portable bower of fresh greenery. Jack and his followers danced around the town collecting money from passersby for later feasting. Today he can often be seen accompanying traditional morris dancing groups.

Jack in the Green is believed to be a woodland spirit who guarded the greenwoods of England. He appears in many kinds of folk art, as a multi-foliate head peering through the leaves. He can still be seen portrayed in church decoration today, usually as a roof-boss, where he is a constant reminder of earlier beliefs.

Beating the Bounds

Beating the bounds was traditionally carried out on May Day. It meant the owner of land or property would walk the boundary of their property to reaffirm their rights. This is still traditionally the day for repairing fences and boundary markers on the land.

Hobby Horses ('Obby 'Oss)

Leighton-Lady Godiva

The people of Padstow, in Cornwall, an otherwise peaceful fishing village slumbering on the Atlantic coast, celebrate May Day with their 'Obby 'Oss Carnival. The revelries start at dawn and continue until dusk, by which time all are exhausted and the pubs have run dry!

Some people believe the custom of riding a hobby horse around the town may come from the legend of Lady Godiva, who rode around the city of Coventry with no clothes on! The old children's nursery rhyme 'Ride a cock horse' is probably a reference to this.

Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,
to see a white lady upon a white horse,
with bells on her fingers and bells on her toes,
she shall have music wherever she goes.

Other Superstitions

  • A widespread superstition is held that washing your face in the May Day morning dew would beautify your skin.
  • By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltane celebration began on sundown of the preceding day, April 30, because the Celts always figured their days from sundown to sundown. Sundown was also the proper time for Druids to kindle the great Bel-fires on the tops of the nearest beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, Co. Meath, in Ireland). These 'need-fires' had supposed healing properties, and people would jump through the flames to ensure protection.

Other May Day Associations

International Workers' Day is a name used interchangeably with May Day. It is a celebration of the social and economic achievements of the international labour movement, and there are organized street demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of working people and their labour unions throughout Europe and most of the rest of the world — though not in either the United States or Canada. More radical groups such as communists and anarchists are also given to widespread street protest on this day as well.

May Day was originally the commemoration of the Chicago riots of 1886: in 1889, the first congress of the Second International, meeting in Paris for the centennial of the French Revolution and the Exposition Universelle (1889), following a proposal by Raymond Lavigne, called for international demonstrations on the 1890 anniversary of the Chicago riot. These were so successful that May Day was formally recognized as an annual event at the International's second congress in 1891. The May Day Riots of 1894 and May Day Riots of 1919 occurred subsequently.

May Day Today

The modern May Day has been transformed into a holiday often associated with socialism and the Labour Movement. This is partly to do with a congress of world Socialist parties held in Paris 1889, who voted to support the U.S. labor movement's demand for an 8-hour day. It chose May 1, 1890, as a day of demonstrations in favour of the 8-hour day. Afterward, May 1 became a holiday called Labour Day in many nations. The holiday is especially important in socialist and communist countries when political demonstrations are often held.

May Day is actually the one festival of the year for which there is no significant church service. Because of this, it has always been a strong secular festival particularly among the working class, who would often take the day off to celebrate it without their employer's approval. It was a popular custom - a people's day - and so it became identified with the Labour and socialist movements and by the 20th Century, it was rooted as part of the socialist calendar.

The Labour movement in the UK chose May Day as International Labour Day, and there are now anti capitalist demonstrations held in London every May Day, unfortunately these are often used as an excuse to damage property and some violence has occurred in recent years. In recent years the anti-capitalist movement has organised a number of large protests in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Doncaster. In London, these have resulted in clashes with the police.  In 2000 the clashes ended with a branch of McDonalds being smashed and a statue of Winston Churchill being given a grass mohawk as a protest at his alleged crimes, the Cenotaph was also defaced with graffiti.

The last few years, however, have seen little trouble, with protests consisting of peaceful marches and gatherings, particularly in central London.  This downturn in civil disorder is usually attributed to either popular distaste at the events of 2000, a tougher stance by the British government on violent protest, or a combination thereof.

Magdalen College Choir

A far nicer custom in Oxford has become one of the more popular and loveliest May Day ceremonies to date. The original buildings of the college itself have changed little since they were built at the end of the 15th century. The square tower which dominates the city of Oxford near Magdalen Bridge over the River Cherwell has a peal of ten bells. In the early hours of the morning at about 6.00 am the Choristers climb 144 feet to the top of the tower to welcome the sunrise by singing madrigals to the crowd below. There are other hymns and a peal of bells before the Morris Dancers take over for the next 2-3 hours. Along with this popular form of entertainment, there is beating the bounds and other age-old rituals of merrymaking throughout the city centre, the best news of all is that the pubs open at 7:00am.


Interesting Links

You can read more about other British folk festivals here.

British Culture