A historical take on May in the British Isles, accompanied by music and photos from Weird Walk : folklore, hauntology & psychogeography oracles.
May has been a sweet spot for festivity across the British Isles for centuries. Our ancestors, much more acutely aware of the changing seasons, would have welcomed the coming of the warmer months with great enthusiasm. As early as 1883, folklorist Charlotte Burne could note:
We, with our coal fires, our plate-glass windows, our lamps and gas-lights, and all our many appliances for indoor comfort and amusement, can hardly appreciate the misery of the cold dark days of winter to our forefathers, their keen enjoyment of the light and warmth and freedom of summer, and the delight with which they greeted the returning spring.
Standing among the megaliths of Avebury or inside the wonderful Rollright stone circle on a late spring day, we can feel the stones themselves warmed by the sun, and in doing so bear witness to the turning of the year. This kind of physical interaction with the landscape and those who walked it before us can resonate deeply, regardless of individual beliefs.
Today, such seasonal impulses still inform many May festivals. From Hastings’ Jack-in-the-Green gathering to the famous Cornish celebrations at Helston and Padstow, these customs have spoken to generations as markers in time towards the balmier days ahead.
A key element in many of these traditions is ‘bringing in the May’, the collecting of flowers and greenery for decoration. We see this in the magical 1953 film Oss Oss Wee Oss, which documents the Padstow May Day celebrations, when the mysterious Obby Osses caper around the town (legend holds that girls caught under the skirts of an Oss will be married before the year is out). Long before the Osses canter out of their pub stables, Padstonians head into the woods to collect greenery to decorate the streets. As the folklorist Steve Roud states, “This notion of going out into the countryside and bringing back foliage was the core of May Day activity for centuries.” Village maypoles would also have been decked out with this vegetation, appearing as massive living plants that provided a focal point for the kind of dances that so irked seventeenth-century Puritans. When the Long Parliament finally outlawed maypoles in 1644 as "a heathenish vanity”, the dancing didn’t end, but was driven underground. Ronald Hutton has drawn parallels between illicit maypole dancing and 1990s rave culture, with young people introducing portable maypoles and local enforcers given deliberately misleading tip-offs as to where dances would be held.
May Day certainly had a rowdy side. Richard Jefferies remembered men on the lookout for fights in rural Wiltshire in the nineteenth century, noting that “every hamlet used to have its representative fighting man – often more than one – who visited the neighbouring villages on the feast days, when there was a good deal of liquor flowing...” These scraps between communities could even become formalised on May Day, as Samuel Redder observed in Gloucestershire in 1779: “Annually, on the first day of May, there is a custom of assembling in bodies on the top of this hill, from the several parishes, to fight for the possession of it, upon which account it is sometimes called May-Hill.”
A century later, May Day formed part of the late Victorian Merrie England boom when, much like Christmas, the day was reshaped and, to some degree, sanitised. Jack-in-the-Green, for example, began life as a startling, floral bush-on-legs who formed part of chimney sweeps’ raucous May Day celebrations in the urban centres of the eighteenth century. When he was reborn out of context in later pageants, it is easy to see why he was interpreted by onlookers as a wood elf or green man, those longing to reconnect with seasonal, rural life projecting fantastical histories onto the character.
Now, many May Day events incorporate elements that represent the diversity of contemporary Britain, and some forge links with a tradition of political activism which holds May Day dear as International Workers’ Day. Like all rich traditions, the coming of the May will continue to evolve.
Although the origins of the rites that now welcome in the British summer will continue to be debated, they certainly speak to something within us all, something that is perhaps particularly important this year – the instinctive knowledge that, with sunnier days ahead, things are looking up.
Photos © WEIRD WALK