The different Faces of May Day

In the Northern Hemisphere the month of May, and particularly the 1st, is an occasion for all sorts of communal activities.

The earliest records we have tell us about the pagan Celtic feast Beltane, held to mark the return of the summer and growing season, which was celebrated with bonfires and wild uninhibited behaviour.

Greek and Roman society also had similar practices – the Romans celebrated the goddess of flowers, Flora, with feasting and general unrestrained carrying-on. In Germany, Walpurgisnacht is a similar celebration commemorating Saint Walpurga, an English abbess who was responsible for bringing Christianity to Germany: fires are lit on mountain tops to ward off witches and evil spirits who are supposed to be at large on the eve of the first of May; she is claimed to be a protector against these evil influences.

A lesser known celebration takes place on Mayday in Kent with the Sweeps’ Festival – a practice which began when the chimney sweeps and their little boy climbers celebrated their only day off in the year. They parade through the town of Rochester in their working garb with garlands of greenery.

The Mayday most of us know is marked by Maypole dancing, cheese rolling, the Padstow “Obby Oss”, well-dressing, and crowning of May Queens, etc. The queen was usually a young village maiden who would be decorated with garlands and preside over the festivities. It was believed that a maid who washed her face in the morning dew would remain beautiful for the rest of the year.

Some anthropologists hint that some of these beliefs are related to ancient fertility rites, and that originally, she may have been a human sacrifice at the end of the celebrations.
Some of these Mayday events have been referred to in literature – we read of Shakepeare’s “darling buds of May” and Tennyson’s “wake me early mother dear, for I’m to be Queen of the May.”

During the Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell all Mayday celebrations were strictly banned and did not reappear until the Restoration of Charles II.

The Catholic Church, after replacing the pagan Yule festival by Christmas, has tried to convert the pagan element of this summer feast into a celebration of the Virgin Mary , “the Queen of May”, “Mary’s Month” “Queen of Heaven” etc, when statues of the Virgin are crowned and garlanded with flowers. This has not been universally recognised, and the age-old customs still go on.

On the secular front, may 1st has been designated by Communist and Socialist societies as “International Workers’ Day” when placards carrying socialist slogans are paraded through the streets accompanied by the singing of the Red Flag, an anthem sung to a tune stolen from the German folk song “Tannenbaum” (the little fir tree.)

Another connection to this special day is its use as the international radio distress call: repeated three times “Mayday”, Mayday, Mayday” which is the speech equivalent of the Morse Code “SOS”.  It was instituted in 1927 by the Flight Controller at Croydon Airport, where most of its traffic was with Le Bourget in France. Seeking for an acceptable form of words for distress calls he decide on the French phrase “M’aidez” or “M’aider” – “Help me “ and has nothing to do with our Spring festival.

As we write, Modbury is gearing up for its own May Fair with its May Queen, May King and their attendants, celebrating not only May Day but the granting of a special privilege to the market of Modbury in ancient times.

Long may it continue.


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