Thursday, 1 May 2008

May Day

A merry dance around a Maypole decorated with coloured ribbons, handkerchiefs and flags; A May Queen dressed all in white, her head crowned with flowers; bowers of birch and blossoming May branches: these are the acceptable remains of the pagan Anglo-Saxon festival of May Day. We will draw a veil over the centuries when loose living men and maids cavorted all night in the woodland and courtiers and their consorts banqueted in arbours and made merry.

In 1889 May Day became Labour Day in Socialist France - in Russia much the same – and many of the traditions of May Day became subsumed. England – unlike France and Russia - had no peasants. Countrymen were not disenfranchised and could own land and somehow Labour Day and May Day festivals managed to remain separate. But in England May Day simply faded as a widespread festival as the traditional May Poles and village Greens disappeared.

It was the pre-Raphaelites who revived May Day, interested as they were in rustic traditions and festivals. William Morris believed that an honest and capable craftsman could produce an item that was not only useful but beautiful too using basic materials such as wood, iron, stone and clay. He was always pleased to find a link between the countryman and his skills, the simplicity of rural life and its sacred and magical rituals.

And Tennyson in his poem, The May Queen, celebrated the tradition:

I sleep so sound all night, mother, that I shall never wake,
If you do not call me loud when the day begins to break;
But I must gather knots of flowers, and buds and garlands gay,
For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother, I’m to be Queen o’ the May.

But it was Ruskin who did the most to revive the customs by reintroducing them to his pupils. In Oxford today there a still May Day rituals as there are in many market towns and villages throughout England. The dance, Strip the Willow, must surely be associated with May Day, Morris Men and Maypole dancers still perform on May Day and May Carols are still sometimes sung.

The superstition that it is unlucky to bring the May blossom into the house is rooted perhaps in the idea that the tree was sacred and still holds sway amongst some country folk today. But flowers still remain central to the idea of May Day everywhere. One lovely aspect of 1st May in France is the wearing of a Lily of the Valley: nothing could be sweeter than that or a more pleasing token of spring.

In England the flowers that were traditionally associated with May Day, as garlands or for decorating our houses, are still part of our landscape. The heady scent of lilac blooms fill our gardens, the purple haze of bluebells cover woodland floors and delicate blossom decorates the apple boughs of the orchard.

Only the simple cowslip – that flower of the meadow in May – is no longer as widespread as fifty years ago. Cowslips were traditionally made into May garlands and balls. They could be cut and tied into a bunch with ribbon and finally used to top a stripped willow-wand. Alternatively they might have been used for a hanging garland in the form of a globe, a crown or a spiral. These hark back to Celtic rituals, Saxon pageants and the festivals of Roman Britain with their goddess of flowers, Flora.

One ancient pageant was the Battle of Winter and Summer: flowers and dancing represented summer and chased winter out of the fields. And it is still true,I'm glad to say, that May chases Winter away.


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