Posted in Traditions

Bringing in the May… What is May day?

Celebrated with dangerous sports, exotic rituals and wild festivities May Day has been celebrated in Britain for centuries. The cheese rolling festival: pictured below takes place in the Cotswolds each May. The cheese can reach speeds of 70mph during the race and their are no rules. Bones are broken and concussion is a regular injury.

An ancient Scottish legend says that if a young woman climbs Arthur’s seat hill peak on May Day and washes her face in the morning dew she will have lifelong beauty.

“Bringing in the May” in Tudor times was celebrated by people collecting flowers and branches at dawn to decorate the houses. May Day was once dedicated to Saint Mary and May Queens are traditionally innocent girls like the Virgin. Statues of Mary in Catholic England (pre the reformation) were crowned with blossom. Today some British Catholics wear blossoms in honour of Mary on the 1st of May

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The students at the University of St Andrews above, run naked into the Icy North Sea at sunrise on May Day. There are torch lit processions too. This was the university which Prince William and his wife attended.

Padstow holds its annual ‘Obby-Oss day’ (Hobby Horse) which is one of the oldest fertility rites in the UK. Revellers dance with the ‘Oss’ through the streets of the town and sometimes through private gardens. They are accompanied by accordion players and followers dressed in white with red or blue sashes who sing the traditional “May Day” song. The whole town is decorated with springtime greenery, and every year thousands of people attend.

1620: Morris dancers and a hobby horse: Richmond, London

Cornwall, in southwest England, has a unique ‘Flower Boat’ ritual. A model ship named ‘The Black Prince’ is covered with flowers and is taken in procession to the beach where it is cast adrift.

May Day is a public holiday in the UK and many villages hold traditional fetes which include: Maypole dancing, crowning the May queen and Morris dancing.

A May queen on her throne

The ‘Moorish dance,’ was popular at the Royal court in the 15th century. Courtiers blackened their faces to look like the exotic people they had heard lived overseas. In 1448 the payment of seven shillings was paid to ‘Moorish dancer’ by the Goldsmiths’ Company in London.


Then in 1600, the Shakespearean actor William Kempe Morris danced from London to Norwich making the traditional ‘Moorish dancing’ become ‘Morris dancing.’

The rural folk dance is usually accompanied by music played by an accordion. The dance has plenty of rhythmic skipping, handkerchief waving, stick thrusting and sword shaking. The male dancers wear bell pads on their shins and often wear decorative hats.

British expatriates form a large part of the Morris traditions in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Hong Kong. There are also around 150 Morris sides (or teams) in the United States.

An accordion used to play music for Morris men

Villagers from Needham Market in Suffolk make their own boats to race on a local lake. The boats can be elaborate painted but they often sink very fast. Some ‘sailors’ dress as Vikings in their longboats or ‘Popeye the Sailor man’. In reality the race is more of a jovial ‘who can sink last contest,’ than a serious competition.


‘Jack in the Green’ who looks like a moving hedgerow and his bogies pictured above is a pre Tudor festival

Victorian May Queens

The ‘May Day run,’ involves thousands of motorbikes taking a 55-mile trip from London to the Hastings. The event is not officially organised; the police only manage the traffic and volunteers manage the parking.

Anne Boleyn’s co-accused were were arrested for treason on May day 1536. Anne was arrested while watching a game of tennis at Greenwich Palace 2nd May.

Happy May Day!


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