The roots of May Day can be traced back at least 2,000 years. The celebration as we know it in the UK today is the result of melding Pagan, Roman and Medieval traditions.
The Celts and British Pagan Heritage
New life and fertility with the coming of summer were marked by the ancient Celts with May Poles and dancing. The May Pole is a tall pole with coloured ribbons tied to the top. Originally the pole would have been a tree cut when it reached the correct height and with the branches cut off, a powerful symbol since the Celts worshipped trees. Young men and women would each hold a ribbon and would dance weaving in and out of each other to plait the ribbons into a complex patterns. The pole signified fertility and dancing around it was supposed to bring this benefit to the dancers.
The Celts divided their year by 4 major festivals. The first day of summer was called Beltane, 'the fire of Bel'. Bel was the sun god worshipped by Celts across Continental Europe, Britain and Ireland. Beltane was celebrated with bonfires to welcome the new season. Fire was believed to cleanse, purify and increase fertility. The Celts jumped over the fire to pledge themselves to each other. Animals were driven through the smoke to protect them from diseases. At Beltane, couples went A-Maying - spending the night in the woods, fields and brought back May and hawthorn blossoms as a sign of fertility and the new season.
In England this became May Day but in Scotland the festival is still known as Beltane. In Edinburgh the spectacle now includes fire displays, drumming, processions with pipe bands and plenty of body paint.
During the 300 year long Roman occupation of Britain the Floralia was celebrated. Flora was the goddess of flowers and spring and the festival in her honour was held for 6 days at the end of April. The celebration was for everyone, not just the nobility, and was all about pleasure, fertility and flowers. The festival included games and dancing so it is easy to see where the flowers, foliage and fun elements of modern British May Day stem from.
Morris dancers are traditional folk dancers. This form of dance dates back to Medieval times. The earliest written record of a Morris dancing performance in England is from 1448 but the origins of Morris are lost in the mists of time. Morris dancing used to be confined to male performers but nowadays both men and women take part. Traditionally dressed in white with strips of bells on their legs, colourful neckerchiefs and belts across their chests, Morris dancers perform jigs, kicks, jumps and set patterns. Morris dancers have become closely associated with May Day. Performing with wooden poles and handkerchiefs, they are a wonderful sight, especially on a village green on a sunny day.
Georgian Era and After May Day Customs
Jack-in-the-Green is a May Day character first recorded in 1770. The man playing Jack is dressed in a conical wicker or wooden framework covered in foliage. The look is completed with green face paint. The character is likely to have evolved from an earlier tradition of milkmaids carrying milk pails decorated with flowers. The use of foliage and flowers firmly associates this tradition with the spring/summer season and the fertility and new life it brings. The tradition went out of favour in the 20th century but has been recently revived and the Jack-in-the-Green features in several May Day celebrations in England.
Hobby horses (or 'Obby 'Osses) feature in festivals in Padstow and Minehead. Music accompanies the wild dancing of the 'osses which are men dressed in 6ft wide wooden hoops draped in black sailcloth and wearing fearsome masks. The origins of the tradition are not known but theories abound. The 'obby 'oss is a rainmaker, a fertility symbol or a deterrent to a landing by the French, or a welcome to summer, dependent on which legend you believe.
Another local festivity in early May is the Helston Floral Festival. This centuries old tradition is most likely to stem from the anniversary of the apparition of St Michael (patron saint of the parish church in Helston) on May 8th. Heralded by an early morning ringing of the church bells, Floral Day features the Furry Dance which weaves in and out of the streets and local houses. The male dancers dress in top hats and tails and the females in beautiful, colourful dresses. Flora Day also features the Hal-an-Tow, a mummers play where St George and St Michael slay the Dragon and the Devil. The players are cheered on by a crowd dressed in Lincoln green and Elizabethan robes.
As the dawn breaks in Dorset on May 1st, Morris Men dance on the site of the old maypole above the Cerne Abbot Giant. Local folklore has long held that the huge chalk figure carved into the hillside is an aid to fertility. The dancing moves to the village square, then a well-deserved breakfast.
Queen of the May is a girl who personifies springtime and summer on May Day. Traditionally she wears white to symbolise purity and a garland or crown. In some older village traditions, there was a Lord and Lady or King and Queen of the May. This custom persists in some areas of England but the Queen of the May is everywhere seen.
Places to Celebrate in Early May
To book your holiday at any UK celebrations of May Day, get in touch with our staycation experts.
The Brexit process seems to keep dragging on and on. Don't let it get you down. Time to plan your escape - at least temporarily. Brits are booking just as many holidays as ever, so at least the uncertainty of Brexit has not managed to take all the joy out of life! Here's some inspiration for your next journey.
Africa is a large continent with a huge array of vistas and activities so you can expect to find something to suit everyone. With its breathtaking natural beauty, contrasts diversity, your holiday to Africa will certainly be unforgettable.
For luxury resorts head to the north to Morocco and Egypt. This is a side of Africa full of history and a different culture to the rest of the continent. Fringed by the Mediterranean it is only a short flight too. Combine beach, city and a river cruise for the ultimate Egyptian experience. Whilst in Morocco visitors can combine desert, mountains, city and beach life.
Located about half way down Africa on the east coast, Kenya is a paradise for outdoor lovers. With its soft powdery beaches, snow-capped mountains, endless savannah and the vastness of Lake Victoria, Kenya can give you once in a lifetime experiences, like wildlife spotting on a safari.
Let's not forget South Africa, the rainbow nation. From bustling cities like Cape Town and Durban to splendid game reserves where you can view the 'big 5' - lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and Cape Buffalo. There are also mountain retreats and scenic coastal drives, not to mention great shopping and museums in Johannesburg. Fancy a tour around awe-inspiring Victoria Falls or a great wine tasting tour around Stellenbosch? Whatever your lifestyle you will find the perfect holiday in South Africa.
Why not head over to our Offers page and search for our latest Africa deals now (select holiday type then country).
England is a beautiful, surprising, historic and wonderful place. Why go abroad when there is so much to see here? From historic castles to lush green countryside to stunning coastline to ancient ports and activities galore.
Following the Brexit vote there is even more reason to stay in the UK, what with rising prices and the falling value of sterling. Get more bang for your buck in dear old Blighty. Visit extraordinary historic houses, castles and towns. The list is endless and no matter where you go, the United Kingdom is steeped in history everywhere you look. Along with this there is a huge range of accommodation to suit every pocket. There is also plenty to do from outdoor pursuits to craft workshops to museums, cinemas and children's activities.
Great Britain now produces excellent food and drink and is a haven for the foodie. Drink in the local brews in Kent, where not only is there the oldest brewery in England but also a multitude of vineyards, not to mention great pubs. Or head to Somerset where cider is king. Tour an orchard and learn how cider is made. Sample excellent local produce in West Sussex with a trip to a dairy to learn how to make cheese. Artisan producers of all types of gourmet foods abound, as do award winning vineyards. Take a trip into East Sussex and tour a quaint old brewery in Lewes.
There are so many amazing sights to see away from the obvious tourist attractions in Britain. In Yorkshire take a trip on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and learn the history of the longest canal tunnel in the world at Standedge in Marsden, West Yorkshire. Taste remarkably good wines at one of the most northerly vineyards in the country, whilst you take a break from touring the breathtaking moorland scenery. Or head to the seaside at Whitby with its ancient abbey and old fishermen's cottages.
England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland offer some amazing choices for short or long breaks. With steam railways, mountains, lakes, rivers both fast and slow and of course endless coastline. Whether you love adrenaline sports like zorbing or white water rafting or prefer to read a newspaper in a pub with a roaring fire - you will certainly find a holiday to suit you in the UK.
Tasteful Travel design bespoke UK tours so why not book a consultation now? We also have a range of short breaks and accommodation so check out our latest offers here. If you need some inspiration for your travel planning just head over to our Destinations page and get booking your staycation now.
England is a beautiful, surprising, historic and wonderful place. Why go abroad when there is so much to see here? From historic castles to lush green countryside and activities galore.
Following the Brexit vote there is even more reason to stay in the UK, what with rising prices and the falling value of sterling. Get more bang for your buck in dear old Blighty on a Tasteful Travel bespoke tour. Visit extraordinary historic castles and towns, such as Hever, Canterbury, Bath and York. Get off the beaten track in the charming villages that abound in Britain.
Don't forget to introduce some foodie experiences into your trip. Drink in the atmosphere and the local brews in Kent, where not only is there the oldest brewery in England but also a multitude of vineyards and cider producers.
Choose to sample excellent local produce in West Sussex with a trip to a dairy to learn how to make cheese. Artisan producers of all types of gourmet foods abound, as do award winning vineyards. Take a trip into East Sussex and tour a quaint old brewery in Lewes.
There are so many amazing sights to see away from the obvious tourist attractions in Britain. Take a trip on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and learn the history of the longest canal tunnel in the UK at Standedge in Marsden, West Yorkshire. Taste remarkably good wines at one of the most northerly vineyards in the country, whilst you take a break from touring the breathtaking moorland scenery.
Now is the time to book your UK tour for the autumn or next spring. Whether you love sightseeing, history or eating and drinking, Great Britain is the place to go. Stay a few days, a week or more. If you need assistance to plan and book your trip get in touch with our UK experts and they will be happy to help.
A fantastic way to understand history is to see it recreated. We were lucky enough to be able to see the Medieval Jousting at Dover Castle arranged by English Heritage (EH). Before witnessing the exciting horsemanship and death defying combat, we explored the Castle's central tower. Built by Henry II, it has been lovingly reconstructed by EH with displays of furniture, food preparation and clothing to bring the Medieval period to life. No expense was spared to recreate Henry II's bed with real silk, fur and gold leaf.
Due to the event being on, English Heritage had arranged various re-enactments and displays in the King's Tower. To see just how fit you had to be to be a knight, a chainmail suit and headdress had been made out of iron, just as it would have been in the Middle Ages. I struggled to lift even the headdress it was so heavy! Having the construction method explained and displayed was fascinating and gives one a real respect for those craftsmen who toiled so long to make this chainmail. No wonder it was only the very rich who could afford it - it must have taken weeks to make just one - and iron was hugely expensive. There were displays of fire breathing and a group of 'wandering minstrels' played medieval music. Children ran around dressed as knights whilst grown ups watched EH volunteers/actors dressed as serfs and gentlefolk from the 1200s. We listened to a debate on the Magna Carta in the King's Hall including public participation. Fun for all the family.
After exploring the basement to the roof terrace of the King's Tower it was time for the Joust to being. Who would think that so much excitement could be generated by such a short gallop. The crack of the lances hitting the shield or body of the opponent could be heard well away from the Tilt Yard. The four 'knights' in full armour with horses decked out as in medieval times was a spectacular sight. The judges and other helpers looked fantastic in their costumes. They must have been boiling in their velvet on such a hot day!
All in all, a wonderful day out. If you love living history, why not request that an event like this is built into your tour or travel itinerary in the UK.