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