The Dawn of May Day

Hopefully enough time has passed since this year’s May Day celebrations for the name to provoke feelings other than exhaustion, hang-overs, and the inevitable panicked essay-crisis that followed. Now I’m less sleep-deprived, I thought it would be interesting to look into the history of the festival. What for many Oxford students entails a club night, night-swimming and a big cooked breakfast for those who survive until 6am, was traditionally a celebration of fertility and new life. 

The tradition can be traced back as early as the Roman era when the arrival of spring would be celebrated with dancing to the Goddess Flora in a festival that took place between April 28th and May 3rd. The Roman religion also celebrated the festival of Cerelia (dedicated to the grain goddess Ceres) for a week in late April. For Gaelic communities, the Beltane festival took place half-way between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice (the beginning of May), in which people would hang flowers and wild blossoms around the doors and windows of their houses. Although these rituals died out as a result of their Pagan influence (particularly due to the significant criticism they received from the seventeenth century Puritan regime), the first day of May, known as Calan Mai or Calan Haf, is still celebrated in many places in Wales. The traditions of decorating your doors and windows with blossom (often hawthorn), and building bonfires on the last day of April to bless the animals and their herders, has never died out, and Beltane is one of the few festivals that survived the establishment of Christianity in Britain –  there is even still a Beltane Fire Society based in Edinburgh. 

The various celebrations associated with the beginning of May also crop up in literature. May Queens, for instance, were most prominent in the Edwardian and Victorian period, where a young girl was dressed in white and crowned with a flower crown, marking her as a symbol of purity and the coming of a fertile spring. Thomas Hardy makes reference to this ritual in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (familiar to any who had the gruelling task of tackling the book for English Literature), where the purity, or lack thereof, of the young women is highlighted by the white dress and celebrations. Oxford’s unique May Day traditions have been depicted in as diverse sources as Vera Brittain’s poem from 1916, “May Morning”, and Richard Attenborough’s 1993 film, Shadowlands, about C.S. Lewis. 

In Oxford, the tradition of the Magdalen College Choir singing from the Great Tower originates in the seventeenth century when the Hymnus Eucharisticus was composed by Magdalen College’s choirmaster, Benjamin Rogers, and has been sung every year on May Morning since. Morris Dancing has also been historically associated with May Day, and Morris Dancers still perform around Oxford following the choir’s performance. Similarly, Green has long been associated with life and rebirth, which is embodied by The Green Man, an ancient pagan figure representing fertility and growth. A central figure in May Day celebrations throughout Northern and Central Europe, he is the male counterpart of the May Queen, and is often portrayed with acorns and hawthorn leaves, medieval symbols of fertility associated with spring. The Green Man can be seen in many places in Oxford; in churches, on college buildings and in street architecture. The Green Man features in churches as a symbol of rebirth and resurrection, key ideas in Christianity, and serves as an example of how images from the ‘old religion’ were brought into medieval churches to tie them to the Christian faith.

The legacy of such festivities certainly remains strong even today. Perhaps the most recognisable aspect of May Day celebrations is the maypole (which Hardy also discusses in Return of the Native). Although the tradition was first practised in Wales in the mid-14th century, many village greens across the United Kingdom were decorated with colourful maypoles circled by dancing children this May Day. I vaguely remember getting the colourful chaos of Maypole dancing in P.E. lessons in primary school. Clearly, things haven’t changed all too much. 

This remains true for the more unruly behaviour that is associated with May Day. Particularly for us students, May Day is no longer a celebration of spring, but rather an excuse for a good night out and a bank holiday used to recover and sleep, at last. Sometimes, this has even resulted in tragedy; ITV News reported in this year’s coverage of Oxford’s May Day celebrations that one person was left paralysed in 1997, and ten were hospitalised in 2005 for jumping from the Magdalen Bridge. The bridge was closed completely between 1998 – 2001 and 2006 – 2009 to try and deter jumpers, and there has been a police presence on the bridge every year since.

So when did this all change? Well, it didn’t really. Although May Day celebrations used to represent more of various spiritual festivals it has evolved from, the spirit of the day remains relatively unchanged. As early as 1250, the Chancellor of Oxford University banned masked dancing, processions, and loud noises, and rioting students were reported in the 19th century. Elsewhere, May festivals have almost always included, or been associated with, raucous or lewd behaviour. In certain periods this was mainly due to the celebration’s affiliation with Pagan tradition, and its complete irrelevance to the Christian calendar. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, maypoles were erected across Britain to symbolise (and celebrate) the end of Puritan rule, and all the prohibitions that came with it. Prior to the criticisms of the Puritan regime, the Roman festival of Floralia often involved the throwing of produce and the release of wild animals into crowds which was unavoidably chaotic. 

As for the May Day Bank Holiday, this was instituted by Michael Foot, then the Labour Employment Secretary, and confirmed by royal proclamation in 1978. Controversially at the time, May 1st also marks International Workers’ Day, which many objected to due to its associations with socialism. Despite considerations by the UK parliament in 2011, and John Major’s government in 1993, to scrap the bank holiday and replace it with a celebration of British history such a ‘Trafalgar Day’, the bank holiday evidently survived.  May Day has a long and varied history both nationally and within Oxford. Although a lot seems to have changed around us, the traditions themselves, and the spirit of the celebrations don’t seem all too different. Yes, decreasing numbers of children dance around maypoles and partake in competitions to become May Queen, but young people still celebrate in their own way. An all-nighter beginning in Bridge or Atik (as documented in another article on this year’s May Day), still captures the same rebellious and free-spirited attitude that May Day always embodied.

Image Description: Queen Guinevere as May Day Queen

Image Credits: John Collier, Queen Guinevre’s Maying via Wikimedia Commons