May Morning singing may have been started to celebrate the completion
of Magdalen College tower in 1509. Another theory is that it began
as a requiem mass for Henry VII, who died on 21 April that year.
The earliest documentary evidence is from the
late 18th Century.
Oxford, people used to think these outfits were swimsuits.
off Magdalen Bridge in full evening dress was once a cherished part
of Oxford's May morning tradition.
medieval bridge was closed for safety reasons for four May mornings
between 1998 and 2001. Now
barriers prevent anyone jumping into the shallow water.
Oxfordshire village of Charlton-on-Otmoor has its own unique May
Day celebration. Local children have a procession to the church,
carrying a rope-like garland of leaves and flowers and each holding
a small cross of flowers. The church has a cross covered with foliage,
which is renewed on May Day and September 19.
used to dance down the street on May Day in Oxford, Deddington,
Bampton and Chiselhampton, as well as in other counties. They were
actually tall conical frames covered in foliage, called Jack-in-the-green.
One jack tradition ended when a prankster set the greenery on fire
and the man inside burned to death. The tradition has been revived
by Oxford University Morris Men (without the burning bit).
Of fortie, threescore of a hundred maides going to the wood
overnight, there have scareceley the thirde parte of them returned
home againe undefiled
condemnation of May revelry
garland processions were one of the most popular May Day celebrations
in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Folklorists Iona and Peter
Opie found them continuing in the 50s at Bampton, Wheatley and Lower
Heyford. The Bampton tradition survives,
but at Whitsun.
of the best descriptions of garland celebrations is in Flora Thompson's
famous Lark Rise, recalling her childhood in Juniper Hill, near
villages had their own special May Day carols, describing how everyone's
been out gathering may bushes. One survives from Swalcliffe, near
Banbury - noted in 1921 when children sang it as they marched through
cheating! But you still have to be bonkers to swim.
Day has become a day of protest against capitalism around the world
- but uproar is nothing new. In London, 14 people were hung, drawn
and quartered after May Day riots in 1517. Another 400 were spared
when Henry VIII took pity on them. They already had the nooses round
descriptions of May Day tell how people went "a-maying",
gathering branches of may through the night and using them to decorate
homes and streets.
Puritan cleric Stubbes claimed maying was an excuse for lewd behaviour
in the woods. "Of fortie, threescore of a hundred maides going
to the wood overnight," he wrote, "there have scareceley
the thirde parte of them returned home againe undefiled."
in the may was banned when Cromwell ruled England.
Puritans destroyed hundreds of semi-permanent maypoles. The best-documented
case was at Neithrop in Banbury in 1589. The row about it went all
the way to the Privy Council. The same Puritans destroyed Banbury's
crosses in 1600.
has been made to erect a new maypole in Banbury, covered in foliage
in the traditional English style - possibly as part of plans to
pedestrianise the market place.
used to be decorated with ribbons, flowers and brasses on May Day
and paraded through towns and villages.
May Day celebrations in the West Country feature outlandish hobby
horses - none of which look like horses. Padstow's are circular
and covered in tar, while Minehead's are boat-shaped and covered
in ribbons. It's said they were originally used to scare away invaders
off the coast.
in dew gathered on May morning was widely believed to improve the
dew was also believed to cure sore eyes. People in Launceston, in
Cornwall, were told to heal swollen necks with May dew gathered
from the grave of a young person of the opposite sex.
people in north-west England used to play April Fool tricks in May.
Victims were called May goslings. Anyone who tried it after midday
was taunted with a rhyme:
Gosling's dead and gone
You're the fool for thinking on
dances that involve plaiting ribbons were invented as part of the
Victorians' whimsical recreation of "Merrie England".
Proper English maypoles had hoops, wreaths or spirals of foliage,
but no ribbons. With no ribbons to weave, dancers just used to kiss
Queen customs became all the rave after Tennyson's poem, The May
Queen, was published in 1832. Before then May celebrations were
often presided over by adults known as the Lord and Lady. They also
appeared at Whitsun ales - boozy celebrations that were a popular
part of the morris-dancing tradition.
once said that cats born in May were useless and should be drowned,
and that May babies were weakly and unlikely to thrive. It also
said boys born in May would be cruel to animals. Such as May-born
weddings were once considered unlucky - yet it's one of the most
popular times to get married.
celebrates the first of May on the wrong day, according to some.
A switch between the Gregorian and Julian calendars a few centuries
back means the original May Day now falls on May 13 - when it is
still celebrated in some parts.