Back in the May Day

PUBLISHED: 13:27 04 May 2006 | UPDATED: 13:27 04 May 2010

AS with many of the traditional and seasonal festivals I have written about, May Day has a fascinating history dating back to pre-Christian times. It is difficult to give an exact historical definition of the origins of these celebrations, because they ar

AS with many of the traditional and seasonal festivals I have written about, May Day has a fascinating history dating back to pre-Christian times. It is difficult to give an exact historical definition of the origins of these celebrations, because they are so wrapped up in the mist of time and influenced by a wealth of cultures and religious practices.

I suppose my earliest memories of May Day are of being taught maypole dancing in the playground of my infant school. Later I found out in school history books that maypole dancing had been banned by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans in the Seventeenth Century. Such festivities were frowned upon and thought to be heathen and un-Godly. Without clear Biblical references, they were deemed to be against the Puritan Rule of God.

What seems to emerge from all of these ancient festivals is the celebration and ritual significance of the seasonal year. Without any scientific explanations for help, our ancestors were dependent on the rhythm and success of nature and felt the need to revere this cycle of life.

Woods and forests appear to be a central focus of May Day traditions. The dark and frightening wild woods of the winter months were now turning into the greenwood of the spring. Early in the morning people went to gather greenery and may blossom to decorate their houses. This was in the hope that it would bring good fortune.

Birch was one of the first trees to break into leaf and it is suggested that maypole dancing derived from dancing around a birch tree to celebrate the spring and was also a symbol of fertility.

Until the beginning of the Twentieth Century, children in East Anglia and the Fens traditionally gathered cowslips in the early morning. These were fashioned into garlands to wear around their heads or necks. A Maypole was put up on the village green and hawthorn boughs were hung on the doors of houses.

A framework of green branches was also erected on the village green, inside of which, Molly dancing took place. Accompanied by a May Man or Jack in the Green. Often the May Man was the local chimney sweep. The day was also called Sweeps' Holiday when traditionally the sweeps' apprentices and climbing boys could ask for money from their clients. In some parts of the country there were Sweeps' Festivals with dancing similar to that of Molly-dancing.

May Ladies were common in May Day celebrations in East Anglia as well. Girls would dress their dolls in pretty dresses and then cover them up in a cloth. They would then go 'May-Dolling' round the village asking all they met if they would 'like to see the May Ladies'. Hopefully the answer was yes. They would show their doll and hope to receive some money or sweets as a gift. The doll is thought to represent the goddess of spring.

In some villages, the dolls were put in baskets with garlands attached to the handle. The basket was then hoisted on a rope over the street and as people approached lowered down as the children sang:

The first of May is Garland Day

So please remember the Garland

We only come but once a year

So please remember the Garland.

The highlight of the day was the crowning of the May Queen, who represented Flora, the Roman goddess of fruit and flowers. In Roman times her festival marked the beginning of the summer and was held every year from April 28 to May 3.

Bank Holidays seemed so much better in the good old days, perhaps I am wearing rose-tinted spectacles, but it beats DIY and the rain.

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