May Day celebrations have their origins in the Roman festival of Flora, goddess of fruit and flowers, which marked the beginning of summer. Floralia was held annually from April 28th to May 3rd. There are also links to Beltane, a Celtic fire festival that celebrates of the coming of summer and the fertility of the coming year.
May Day was especially popular in Medieval times. Activities centered around the Maypole, a tree collected from the woods and brought to the village to celebrate the upcoming summer. There were often temporary “greenwood marriages” of young men and women who spent the entire night in the forest, staying out to greet the May sunrise, and bringing back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next morning.
It’s May! It’s May!
The lusty month of May!…
Those dreary vows that ev’ryone takes,
Ev’ryone makes divine mistakes!
The lusty month of May!
– Lerner & Lowe
The Puritans reacted with pious horror to most of the May Day rites. One angry Puritan wrote that men “doe use commonly to runne into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe.” And another Puritan complained that, “Of forty, threescore or a hundred maids going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.”
By the late 1500’s the Puritans considered that the Maypole was associated with paganism and immorality and were against May Day on the grounds that its celebration was Papist, not founded in the Bible and tended to lead to public rowdiness. Parliament banned Maypoles altogether in England in 1644
… the prophanation of the Lord’s Day by May-poles (a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness) …all and singular May-poles that are and shall be erected, shall be taken down and removed by the constables, bossholders, tithing -men, petty constables, and church-wardens of the parishes where the same be, and that no May-pole be here-after set up, erected, or suffered to be set up within this kingdom of England or dominion of Wales; the said officers to be fined five shillings weekly till the said May-pole be taken down.
Afer the Restoration in 1660, Maypoles were also restored and May Day was once again celebrated throughout England, though the celebrations did not ever regain their former popularity. The Maypole dance of plaiting ribbons around the pole did not begin until the nineteenth century.
May Day has been a traditional day of festivities throughout the centuries. It is most associated with towns and villages celebrating springtime fertility and revelry with village fetes and community gatherings. Traditional English May Day rites include Morris dancing, crowning a May Queen and celebrations involving a Maypole.
In Devon today, probably the most famous May Queen celebrations can be found at the Dartmoor village of Lustleigh. Here the May Day traditions had lapsed until in 1905 when Cecil Torr revived them. They have been held on the first Saturday in May ever since. The May Queen is escorted through the village beneath a flower-bedecked bower by her consorts and crowned in the town orchard where she watches over the Maypole dances. Her granite throne sits atop May Day Rock which has the names of all of the May Queens from 1954 to 2007 inscribed on it.
Then came fair May, the fairest maid on ground,
Deck’d all with dainties of the season’s pride,
And throwing flowers out of her lap around.
The Maypole dancers are accompanied by a live folk music band and they dance for about two minutes at a time and alternately weave and unweave patterns with the maypole ribbons.
Weaving a pattern
After the dance
There was a little fete set up in the orchard with raffle tables, games for kids and of course cakes, cream scones and cups of tea in the Village Hall. Even though I am an ‘outsider’ it was really nice to observe a centuries-old tradition and be part of a community event that wasn’t brought to me by Verizon Wireless or Coca-Cola.
Past and future May Queens