The Druids Knew May Day — a history of May Day customs and celebrations

may day customs

May Day, which this year falls on Thursday, is probably the oldest British festival in the calendar. Two thousand years ago it was celebrated by the Druids, who offered sacrifices from sacred mountains and kindled fires on the hilltops by night. Many interesting old customs applied to the day until 1889, when it became the day for celebration of the international labour movement.

May Day has been one of the four great witches’ Sabbaths, and, so the peasants of many countries say, the witches would in the early hours ride on he-goats and broomsticks to the ancient places of sacrifice to hold revel there with the Prince of Darkness.

maypole dancing

It has been the day of Maypole dancing and typically English folk customs — the milkmaids’ dance, the frolic of Jack-in-the-green, and the rush to the field to gather May-dew, which, as a cosmetic, was said to ensure perpetual youth.

Now May Day is notable only for the Labour demonstrations that are held throughout Europe and America on that day. Its more colourful associations are practically only memories. But what memories they are!

Celebrations something akin to those of the ancient Druids were common among many of the peasant peoples of Europe in the days of Christ, and until about a century ago were still observed in some parts of Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, and the Isle of Wight.

About the same time the Romans were flocking into the meadows to pay homage to the goddess Flora in the Floralian celebrations. These began on April 28th, and usually ended on May Day.

In the history of May Day then comes a gap of more than 1,000 years. Then we find Chaucer writing of the court that went “To fetche the floures, freshe, and braunche and blome.” The days of maying had begun.

Two hundred years later we find the young King Henry VIII with his girl wife, Katharine, riding to shooters Hill to bring in the may. His cavalcade fell in with a band of archers 200 strong, whose chieftain was called Robin Hood. In an exhibition the archers sent their arrows overhead with a strange sound, says a chronicler, that delighted the King and Queen and their company.

In the Tudor days, too, we find a great maypole, sometimes “as high as the mast of a vessel of 100 tons,” being brought into the centre of the revels. But here a chronicler sees a relic of the Druid and Celtic customs.

He writes that the maypole, a “skynking ydol,” was erected and round it the people did “daunce about like as the heathen people did at the dedication of idols.” He was convinced that the “Lord over their pastimes was Sathan, Prince of hell.”

The upshot of this and many similar opinions was that maypole dancing was barred by the Puritans under Cromwell, but on the very first May Day after the Restoration a worthy successor was put up, with much ceremony, opposite Somerset House.

The merry people of the old days had a maypole permanently fixed in every town, and some of these still survive in some of the more remote parts of the country. But they are now few and far between.

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may queen

The custom of having a Queen of the May seems to be a relic of the Roman celebration of May Day, when a flower-crowned maid was the living representation of the goddess Flora.

At these old English dances the Queen of the May did not join in the revelries with her subjects, but sat, half-covered with flowers, as an object of admiration to all the townspeople. It must have been a dull post, but the admiration it conjured up in the breasts of the simple peasants must have been the recompense. There are still May Queens in some parts of France.

A part of all true maying was the gathering of the May-dew, for May-dew, especially that of May Day, had a wonderful reputation as a cosmetic and for preserving youth.

Thus Samuel Pepys noted in his diary one May eve: — “My wife away to Woolwich in order to a little ayre, and to lie there tonight, and so gather May-dew tomorrow morning which Mrs. Turner hath taught her is the only thing in the world to wash her face with.”

More than a century later, May 2nd, 1791, “The Morning Post” records that many people went into the fields to bathe their faces in the dew, under the idea that it would render them beautiful.

In London, until relatively recently, May Day was kept up by parties comprising three chimney sweeps in fantastic costumes, a woman, and a Jack-in-the-green, who was concealed under a frame of herbs and flowers. They would dance every now and again to the music of pipe and drum in the hope of being rewarded with pennies. The Jack-in-the-green has been given a welcome new lease of life in recent years, what with revivals in Rochester, Hastings, and Whitstable among many others.

Milkmaids a century ago had much the same custom. They danced round a cow. Earlier still they were joined by a man bearing a frame which bore silver flagons and dishes. These silver things were lent out at so much an hour by pawnbrokers and would grace many milk maids’ dances in the course of a May Day.


On May Day eve, and in the early hours of May Day, according to the peasants of Finland, there was not a hilltop in the country that was not thronged by demons and sorcerers. On Brocken, the highest point of the Hartz Mountains in Germany, too, witches were believed to meet on the eve of May Day — or Walpurgis Eve as it is known in Black Magic works.

* * * * *

This was one of the anniversaries when the meetings were particularly solemn, with as large an attendance as possible. All who belonged to the infernal cult were required to present themselves. Punishment was meted out to those who were slack or slow.

There does not appear to be any formal order in the Walpurgis Eve ceremonies, but one writer of the Black Art tells of “mere clowning and japery, mixed up with circumstances of the extremest horror; childishness and folly with loathly abominations.”

Now, sadly, practically all these interesting old customs have died out. In their place has been born the Labour demonstrations. Despite this, however, there are pockets where the old traditions still survive; and I will be attendance, next weekend (yes, a little late for May Day itself), at one such gathering:- the Downton Cuckoo Fair where there will be merrymaking of the finest order including Maypole dancing, Morris dancers and, no doubt, a veritable feast of olde-worlde crafts.

* * * * *

May Day Celebrations At Elstow, 1939
(click on the image below)


Innocent’s Song, a ghost story for ‘Oranges and Lemons’ Day

innocent's song, a ghost story

I intended this story for children but possibly it’s a little too scary! What do you think?

It was that part of the evening when the shadows are deepening and the twilight had nearly run its course. The singing birds had finished their merry song, and children were settling down for peaceful slumber.

The young children of Glenford Grange had in the early afternoon come out in the park for a little party, but, finding the open air so delightful, they were loath to return to the house, and lingered on enjoying to the full the calm, evening air. However, as darkness commenced to envelop the surroundings, they crept closer to one another, and conversed in whispers. To their right stretched a vast expanse of lawn, which seemed, to their imaginative minds, to be peopled with strange and mystic figures—fairies, ghosts, goblins, and other fearsome things. Their talk eventually fell on ghosts—a strange theme for discussion out there on the green lawn in the silence.

Helen looked round her timidly, the uncanny silence and stillness playing on her nerves. She turned her head, and then suddenly she gave a start as a terrified shriek escaped her lips.

“Look! over there!” she gurgled, clutching Adam by the arm. Her face went white as she trembled in every limb.

The remainder of the little party jumped to their feet in consternation, wondering at Helen’s strange behaviour. Alas ! They were only too soon reduced to the same straits of terror as she, when they looked in the direction of her outstretched finger.

A white ghostly figure drifted across the lawn—a figure of mystery; for whence it had come, or what was its mission they could not tell. Adam pinched himself hard to be assured that he was not dreaming. But, no! He had full command of his senses, for this silent, mysterious figure continued its noiseless way, getting nearer, ever nearer to the little huddled-up, terrified group under the tree.

What was that ? All three had heard the singing: a strange, disembodied voice chanting gently, coming to them from across the lawn.

The sound rose high into the air whereupon the words became clear.

“Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s.
You owe me five farthings, say the bells of St. Martin’s.
When will you pay me? say the bells of Old Bailey…”

Long it lingered, startling even the insects from the flowers, and then suddenly, in one mournful outburst, the cadence of it died away.

The ghostly figure was nearing the thicket at the edge of the woods, and scarcely had the last notes of the cry died away, before it also disappeared into nothingness—mere space as it seemed.

A night-owl screeched, and a tree cast its shadows over the forlorn little party. Then the Moon,” Her Majesty of the Night,” sailed forth in her full glory, shedding a silvery radiance over the landscape.

Trembling and quaking in every limb, it was long before the children induced themselves to pass that dreaded spot, where the mysterious apparition had appeared, and where that singing had seemed to summon the ghost back to the land whence it had come.

The next day the children were inclined to disbelieve that the previous night’s experience had really occurred. Out there now, with the sunshine pouring down, and the birds singing merrily, it seemed as if the occurrence had been merely the substance of some horrible nightmare. They strove to obliterate the memory of it from their minds, but in vain.

“I vote a game of hide and seek,” said Clifford at length. “It might help to rid us of these gloomy thoughts.”

The suggestion was eagerly accepted, and Adam and Blossom ran together to hide. Blossom wormed her way into the middle of a group of gorse-bushes, but suddenly she was confronted with the face of a child, grey and worn, as if bearing an age beyond her years, which peered at her through the bushes.

“Oh, my! Little dearest!” she cried. “Oh! My little dearest—come to me.”

A brilliant smile, as welcoming as the blossom, lit up the tiny face before her, but as quickly as it had come it faded, and was replaced by something quite different.

Astounded, Blossom stood there, frozen to the spot, staring wide-eyed at the little child, expecting it to come to her. And then, amidst the silence came a small sound, as if a metal blade was swiping somewhere in the near distance.

Snip! Snip! Snip!

Only then did Blossom looked beneath the face of the child, and then she realised the situation.

Snip! Snip! Snip! went the tiny blades.

Chip chop, chip chop went the voice in her head.

With her eyes closed and arms outstretched, she awaited the terrible thing, but it was not she who came, for Adam, quickly concluding that Blossom had chanced upon one of the previous night’s supposed ghosts made his way to intercept the little trespasser of the park. But he was doomed to disappointment, for, before he could clasp his arms around her, there rose in the air that ghastly chanting of the night before, and his little prisoner slipped from his grasp.

Baffled, foiled and disappointed, Adam and his cousins made a full search, hoping to find some clue to the mystery which at present enveloped the recent events. At last they reluctantly decided to let Mr. Glastin, Adam’s father, into their secret, for they were sure that if he made investigations he would set matters right. They found Mr. Glastin in his office, and the little party having seated themselves, Adam proceeded with his story.

“Father, did you hear a strange singing last night, and this morning?” he asked.

“Yes, my son,” replied Mr. Glastin, with a strange smile as he turned to view the serious young face of his son, “yes, it is not an uncommon sound, particularly at this time of year.”

“Father, sorry, I—,” Adam paused momentarily to look at his cousins, “—we, that is, do not understand.”

Mr. Glastin then related a strange tale, which gave some explanation to their recent experience.

His mother, so he told them, had, one night, been alone in the house except for her two small children when she was aroused from sleep by the sound of singing outside her bedroom window. She listened, her heart beating wildly. After what seemed hours the singing ceased, followed by sounds as of creeping footsteps around the house. Not for a moment were they silent. She could follow them all the way round till slowly, without hurry, without pause, they once more reached her window. A few moments of nerve-wracking silence. Then a crying, scarcely audible, becoming gradually louder and louder till it ended in an awful shriek. My mother lay trembling, almost too frightened to breathe, till she heard the little gate of her front garden open and shut, then, summoning all her courage, she rose, and creeping to the window, raised the blind just a little. She saw in the bright moonlight, walking across the lawn towards her aunt’s house, a small figure in a white dress. The figure disappeared behind the gorse bushes. My poor mother, terrified for the safety of her relatives, left the house and followed the singing which still hung upon the air. It led her to the bushes, and deep into its centre — such was its enchantment —whereupon she came across a little grave, nothing more than a headstone, but one that had been entirely hidden from view, consumed by the thick growth of gorse several feet in height. In all her years of living in the house she had never before stumbled across it. Stranger still was the inscription upon the headstone:—

‘Twas sweetness that cut you down,
As mild a song as Heaven found;
And turning from the face of day,
You softly sigh’d your soul away.
So happy infant, early blest,
In peaceful slumbers now you rest.

When she reached the house, and had related her tale, her aunt told her another story, one of a little girl who had been buried and forgotten:

The children had been playing together in the garden, and the father remarked that it was time for them to go to bed. However, he allowed them to play a little while longer after they had pleaded for him to let them have one last song together. Gertrude had suggested a rhyme, and Thomas, seeing an immediate relevance, had revealed a pair of gardening shears which he said would be most appropriate for the chip! chop! verse.

But tragedy was to strike; after only a single round of the song, Thomas tripped across a line of exposed roots, and the shears, remaining tightly held in his grasp, were driven upwards with such force that they penetrated the exposed neck of his little sister. The skin was pierced, and the blade penetrated as deep as the spine. Her brother attempted to extract the scissors, but had little success; the blood immediately gushed from the wound. Thereupon the girl collapsed and soon died. The song they were singing, as you will undoubtedly have guessed, was Oranges and Lemons.

* * * * * * *

Oranges and Lemons Day takes place every year in London, usually on the third Thursday of March [1], even when Easter intervenes, at the Church of St Clement Danes.

Children who go to the nearby St Clement Danes Church of England Primary School attend a service, after which the church’s bells are rung and the children are given each an orange and a lemon.

Click on the photograph below to view a video of the Oranges and Lemons Day church service.

oranges and lemons

Season’s greetings from Freaky Folk Tales


I just wanted to express my thanks to the many readers who have supported and contributed to my blog over the past year. A very merry Christmas to you all!


The highlight of my year has undoubtedly been the number of readers who have bought, and favourably reviewed, my first collection of short ghost stories, GHOSTS AND OTHER SUPERNATURAL GUESTS, which is currently 4.5 stars on Amazon and winner of the Gothic Reader Book Choice award for 2013!

The book is available on Amazon here:

I am indebted to all my wonderful blogging friends who regularly comment on and promote my short stories of the supernatural. Please continue to spread the word!

Kind regards and best wishes to you all for 2014!

Regards, Paul