Adam Henson


Countryfile Magazine - - May In The Country -

May is the time for flower shows, horse tri­als and the first out­door mu­sic fes­ti­vals of the year. It’s also the month when the whole of the UK en­joys two Bank Hol­i­days within the space of a few weeks. But the longer days and warmer weather also bring some very old an­nual tra­di­tions with their roots in farm­ing and the ru­ral way of life.


The first day of the month, May Day, is known around the world as the In­ter­na­tional Work­ers’ Day. But in Eng­land, the oc­ca­sion goes back cen­turies and started as an agri­cul­tural cel­e­bra­tion to mark the fer­til­ity of the land and the livestock. Be­fore mod­ern sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy im­proved arable grow­ing and an­i­mal hus­bandry, farm­ers had to put their faith in leg­end and su­per­sti­tion. Spring was when crops were sown and most livestock were bred. In the pre-in­dus­trial world, good har­vests and plenty of healthy an­i­mals to eat and to sell re­ally was a mat­ter of life or death.

So a whole ar­ray of fer­til­ity rites and cus­toms grew up around en­sur­ing viril­ity and pro­duc­tiv­ity. Even the Ro­mans held a fes­ti­val at this time of year in hon­our of Flora, their god­dess as­so­ci­ated with flowers. The an­cient Celts called it Beltane and lit fires on high ground in the hope of bring­ing fruit­ful­ness to the trees, crops and livestock. In some places, cat­tle were herded be­tween fires – it’s thought that the smoke or ashes would pro­tect against dis­ease. In the English tra­di­tion, peo­ple gath­ered to sing, dance and dis­play gar­lands while the char­ac­ter of The Green Man, dressed in leaves, was an ob­vi­ous sym­bol of re­birth and new growth.


In May, hir­ing fairs were held in mar­ket towns all over the country, pro­vid­ing labour­ers and ser­vants with the chance to come face to face with landown­ers in need of new staff. In many places, May Day was the tra­di­tional spring date for this and any­one who was avail­able for hire would wear an em­blem on their lapel or hat to rep­re­sent their pre­ferred job. Shep­herds wore a tuft of wool, herds­men dis­played a hay stalk and milk­maids would have a bunch of cow hair. Girls want­ing to be house­maids car­ried the strands from a mop, and it’s thanks to them that these events be­came known as ‘Mop Fairs’. If the em­ployer was im­pressed with the man or woman he met, then they would be­gin bar­gain­ing over wages, work­ing con­di­tions and lodg­ings. The last hir­ings like this took place around a cen­tury ago when proper em­ploy­ment laws came in, but Mop Fairs live on to­day as fun­fairs in many country towns.


The de­mands of mod­ern agriculture mean that most farm­ers don’t have much time to fol­low or take part in old May tra­di­tions. In fact, many of us don’t even have the chance to take a day off on the May Bank Hol­i­day. But as farm­ing be­comes an in­creas­ingly global in­dus­try, the cul­ture and her­itage em­bed­ded in our up­bring­ing takes on a spe­cial mean­ing, with tra­di­tions such as mor­ris danc­ing and may­poles still wel­comed by Bri­tain’s farm­ers.

The world’s favourite sea­son is the spring. All things seem pos­si­ble in May” Ed­win Way Teale

Mar­ket town Mop Fair in south Eng­land, 1935

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