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
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