May Day – Old and New

May Day is a traditional European holiday that has been celebrated since ancient times in the springtime to honor the fertility of the soil, livestock, and people, as well as to demonstrate “joy at the return of spring.”[1] Some of the early May Day celebrations included “blowing lustily through cows’ horns … [and] drinking deeply from cups.”[2] These early celebrations, or “jollities” as they were called, occurred near “the first of May, to remind people of the pleasantness of that part of the year, which ought to create mirth and gaiety.”[3] There was also the ever important gathering of flowers and branches from the hawthorn tree that legend claimed sprang from lightning and possessed supernatural properties. No one can forget the maypole either. It has served as a significant and major element in May Day celebrations, as have the maypole dances, which involved morris dances, a form of English folk dancing accompanied by music that involves rhythmic execution of choreographed steps. Traditional folk plays, known as mummeries, were also performed at May Day celebrations, and as time passed, new traditions have evolved and mixed together with the old traditions.

May Day: Queen Guinevere's Maying, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Queen Guinevere’s Maying. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One of the earliest elements involved in the celebration of May Day was something that remained popular in the 1870s. It was the gathering of hawthorn blossoms. The Scottish poet Robert Burns noted it was “the milk-white thorn, that scents the evening gale.”[4] But the hawthorn tree offered more than just its wonderful scent. It was believed the tree sprang from lightning, and the white branches procured “on May-day [were] supposed to act as an antidote to the machinations of witchcraft.”[5] The hawthorn also became “interwoven with a great variety of superstitious belief.”[6] For instance, the white branches were thought to be favored by the fairies, and in certain parts of Ireland and Brittany, it was considered “unsafe to gather even a leaf from certain old and solitary thorns which [grew] in sheltered hollows of the moorland, and [were] the fairies’ trysting places.”[7] Part of the sanctity of the white thorn was the long held belief it was “the crown placed in derision on the head of Christ, previous to his crucifixion.”[8] Additionally, other cultures believed both the white and black hawthorn branches were important as they were representative “of the Mimosa catechu, the sacred thorn of India, … [and] amongst the Germans ‘wishing’ or ‘divining’ rods were made from both the … thorn[s].”[9]

Hawthorn Blooms, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hawthorn blooms. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In the 1700s, another important element of May Day was the maypole. The maypole was a tall towering pole, whose exact origins and symbolism are unknown, and, today, debates as to the pole’s exact origin continue. It is generally believed the pole originated with German paganism in the Iron Age and when conversion to Christianity occurred, its meaning was lost. In England, in the 1700s, a procession of participants proceeded to march to the maypole near sundown, which was usually about six o’clock in the evening. Leading this procession was the May Queen, followed by her attendants. After arriving at the maypole, it was surrounded by “brisk young wenches,” milkmaids, or a select group of dancers. The tall maypole was often covered with herbs or flowers and sometimes painted different colors before it was bedecked with different colored ribbons (usually two colors). May poles usually had 24 streamers, and it normally took twenty-four dancers to wind the ribbons around the pole during the various morris dances that included the Dutch windmill dance, milkmaids’ revel, a five pole dance, the may-pole waltz, peasants’ dance, the foresters’ dance, or one of the many others performed on May Day.

Maypole Festivities on May Day, Author's Collection

Maypole festivities on May Day, Author’s collection.

Besides the traditional maypole and associated decorating and dancing, May Day celebrations involved a sort of mummery that started in England during medieval times. The mummeries were performed by actors known as mummers. They sometimes wore masks or disguises and performed pantomimes, often comedic in nature, that had allegorical plots and consisted of mythological characters. The underlying theme of the mummery was good versus evil with the central plot involving the killing and restoring of a character back to life. One description of the mummers during medieval times described them in the following manner:

“[Standing] hand in hand … in a wild throng around the pole, — many were in the guise of wild animals, — a monster ring. Others … gaily dressed, with head dresses that were wonderfully made, high and plumed, made of pasteboard covered with flowers, bugles, and colored streams. The dresses were of figured material, with many ribbons highly colored, pointed breeches and gaudy hose, shoulder knots and sashes.”[10]

Party of Mask Mummers, Public Domain

Party of masked mummers. Public domain.

By the 1700s, John Brand, an English antiquarian, recorded that even the common people behaved in mummery-like fashion on May Day, and noted:

“The chimney-sweepers … parade the streets in companies, disguised in various manners. Their dresses are usually decorated with gilt paper, and other mock fineries; they have their shovels and brushes … which they rattle one upon the other; and to this rough music they jump about in imitation of dancing.”[11]

Apparently, the chimney sweeps’ or climbing boys’ main goal in dressing in costume was to obtain “‘alms’ or rather [as they called it] ‘largesses.'”[12] But the chimney sweeps were not alone in seeking largesses. Brand claims he was accosted by the “‘tosspots’ of Lancashire … and between Hounslow and Brentford … met by two distinct parties of girls with garlands of flowers, who begged money … saying, ‘Pray, sir, remember the garland.'”[13]

Chimney Sweep Celebrating May Day, Public Domain

Chimney sweep celebrating May Day. Public domain.

The garland also referred to a former custom whereby milkmaids, in various parts of England, would dance around a “garland” decorated with valuable articles.

“Brilliantly polished milk-pails, and various utensils of the dairy, metal tea-pots, and every description of silver and plated articles were collected and arranged in pyramidical [sic] form, and interspersed with sprays and bunches of flowers, green leaves, and finery. This was called the ‘milkmaids’ garland.'”[14]

Milkmaids' Garland, Public Domain

Milkmaids’ garland. Public domain.

Since the 1700s, the plucking of hawthorn branches, dancing around the maypole, and the presentation of mummeries have combined to make May Day an important and festive event. However, in addition to the old traditions, new ones have started. An annual motorbike ride started some 30 years ago that involves a 55 mile trek from London to the Hastings seafront of East Sussex, and it has grown to include revelers throughout Great Britain. May Day became even more important in 1978 when the day was declared a bank holiday. The celebration has also taken on new meaning in college and university towns. At the University of St. Andrews, the night before May Day, students gather at the beach and celebrate the following morning by running into the sea, occasionally running in nude. In Oxford, revelers gather the morning after May Day to listen to the Magdalen College Choir as a conclusion to the May Day festivities. London has not been left out in the celebrations either. There a May Day march to Trafalgar Square occurs and is followed by a rally with the hope that one day, May first will be reinstated and become a national holiday.


  • [1] Hardwick, Charles, Traditions, Superstitions and Folk-lore, 1872, p. 85.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] The Knickerbocker: Or, New-York Monthly Magazine, Volume 53, 1859, p. 427.
  • [5] Hardwick, Charles, p. 91.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 92.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 92-93.
  • [9] Ibid., p. 91.
  • [10] Lincoln, Jennette Emeline Carpenter, The Festival Book, 1920, p. 3.
  • [11] Strutt, Joseph, The Sports and Pastimes of the People of England from the Earliest Period, 1801, p. 281.
  • [12] Hardwick, Charles, p. 74.
  • [13] Ibid.
  • [14] The English Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 11, 1894, p. 789.

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