There are a great many traditional customs associated with May Day and it has been celebrated one way or another since the Middle Ages.
As in most Northern countries, May Day (or Garland Day) marked the end of the winter and was honoured through time with music, dancing and games.
In the early twentieth century greenery was collected by children to make garlands and there would then be a procession through the streets with flowers fastened on to sticks or hoops in the hope of collecting money.
At Charlton-on-Otmoor in Oxfordshire a large wooden cross is covered with yew and box leaves and placed above the rood screen in the church. This is referred to as the ‘garland’ or ‘lady’ and the greenery is replaced twice a year, on 1st May and 19th September. Children bring small crosses of wood or flowers which are placed around the church and after a church service they perform maypole dances.
Apart from maypole dances, other traditional May Day celebrations include the appearance of hobby horses and characters such as Jack in the Green.
Hobby animals have been a feature of May Day jollity for centuries and perhaps the most famous one is the Hobby Horse in Padstow, Cornwall. On 30th April the town is decorated with greenery and flags and on the morning of 1st May the ‘Oss wakes up to spend the day dancing through the streets, where it is considered to be good luck to be caught under his cloak! Minehead in Somerset is also famous for its hobby horse, though here celebrations go on for three days.
Jack in the Green was part of the seasonal calendar marked by chimney sweeps and he would dance through streets collecting donations for the sweeps to help see them through the summer when it was difficult to earn a living.
The Furry Dance takes place on 8th May in Helston, Cornwall and is another example of a pagan ceremony to ‘fetch the summer home’. It takes its name from the Celtic word ‘feur’ meaning ‘festival’ and dancers go along the High Street and weave in and out of everybody’s houses to bring good luck.
Another long-standing ceremony is ‘well dressing’. Wells were venerated as providing fresh clean water to villages and would be associated with local deities or spirits. As Christianity took hold, the worshipping of water spirits was replaced with saints and the custom of ‘dressing wells’ in veneration of the saints was established. The most famous well-dressing ceremony takes place in Tissington in Derbyshire, where it can be traced back to 1349 when the village escaped the Black Death.
29th May is Oak Apple Day and commemorates the triumphant return to London of King Charles II in 1660. The wearing of oak leaves was a symbol of the King’s narrow escape from Cromwell’s soldiers by hiding in an oak tree and was seen as a continuation of the traditional May Day festivities which already had a tendency to spread throughout the month.
May was obviously a busy month for our ancestors as they looked forward to the summer.