The Simple Things




As a time of gathering people together and a break from the normal routines of work, for centuries, throughout the northern hemisphere, 1 May has been a notable date in the diary.

And it’s managed to stick around – unlike most of our ancient festivals that have no Christian link – and remains in its many and various green, glorious and unusual forms.

Among different traditions all over Europe, such as Walpurgis Night in Germanic areas (during which people dress in costumes, play pranks on one another and create loud noises to ward off evil), English May Day looks back to a Roman celebratio­n, Floralia, honouring the goddess of flowers, Flora. It’s also connected to the goddess Maia who, while little else is now known, gave the month her name.

Anglo-Saxons celebrated the Month of Three Milkings, so called because the livestock were so well fed with the fresh grass they could be milked three times a day. Many of the celebratio­ns associated with this time of bounty – featuring everything from May Queens to Morris Dancers – live on, albeit now concentrat­ed into a day, rather than a whole month of festivitie­s.

And, of course, there’s the Celtic festival of Beltane, associated with rituals such as the lighting of fires to protect cattle and crops. The day is still honoured at Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival every 30 April. And some of Beltane’s customs are echoed throughout Britain, such as the washing of faces in morning May dew to improve beauty.

Medieval times really saw the blossoming of May Day festivitie­s in England, when revellers could “go a-maying,” gathering flowers and greenery. (The confusing lyrics “Here we come gathering nuts in May” actually refer to collecting branches of Knots of May or Hawthorn.) The first recorded evidence of the maypole comes from this period, in a 14th-century Welsh poem by Gryffydd ap Adda ap Dafydd, in which he describes a tall birch pole used at Llanidloes. Games and contests were held while, later, during the 16th century, Robin Hood and his Merry Men began turning up in festivitie­s – one theory is that Maid Marian has links back to Maia and the May Queens.

All very jolly, but not everyone was a fan. When the Puritans banned maypoles in 1644, they described them as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstiti­on and wickedness”. They returned with a vengeance following the Restoratio­n in 1660. According to the writer John Aubrey, maypoles were put “at every crossway” in London, including one around 40 metres high in the Strand.*

Even the name of London’s well heeled Mayfair neighbourh­ood comes from its links to May festivitie­s. It was the site of a fortnight-long fair, which took place annually from 1686 until 1764, when locals’ complaints moved the fair on. Times were a-changing.

In fact, increased urbanisati­on and industrial­isation resulted in reduced holidays and festival days and William Hone lamented in his The Every Day Book of 1825, that “there is nothing of the boisterous rudeness which must be well remembered by many old Londoners on May Day”.

The Victorians reinvented May Day as a family festival. The May Queen became a young girl, dressed in white, with a floral crown, and often with a retinue of attendants. It’s perhaps surprising that the oldest unbroken May Queen tradition, in Hayfield, Derbyshire, only dates back to 1928 (although based on a much older May Fair). It wasn’t until 1978 that we gained the bank holiday – Prime Minister James Callaghan picked it out to coincide with Internatio­nal Workers’ Day and reward workers for a long winter of toil (almost as if he foresaw the ‘ Winter of Discontent’ of 1978–9).


There is, of course, another side to May Day. Time magazine wrote in 1929: “To old-fashioned people, May Day means flowers, grass, picnics, children, clean frocks. To up-and-doing socialists and communists it means speechmaki­ng, parading, bombs, brickbats, conscienti­ous violence.” In 1904, the date was chosen as Internatio­nal Workers’ Day by social and communist groups, in reference to the ‘Haymarket Affair’, 1886, when striking Chicago workers were killed by police. They called on people to “demonstrat­e energetica­lly on 1 May for the legal establishm­ent of the eight-hour day, for the class demands of the proletaria­t, and universal peace.” It’s still an important holiday in China, Cuba and North Korea.

During the Cold War, President Eisenhower attempted to sever any implied links to communism and renamed it ‘Loyalty Day’. It remains a day of demonstrat­ions and perhaps even riots. Ninety five people were arrested during the May Day protests in London in 2000 and 2001, and it’s earmarked by groups such as Occupy. Perhaps it’s something in the spring water, but the day’s power shouldn’t be underestim­ated: it was a key date in the Portuguese revolution of 1974 and in the uprising against apartheid in South Africa.

 ??  ?? May Day, May Day: the use of the phrase as an emergency call hasn’t anything to do with seasonal madness. It’s a mispronunc­iation of the French venez m’aider (“come help me!”), believed to have been chosen as an alternativ­e to SOS by radio officer...
May Day, May Day: the use of the phrase as an emergency call hasn’t anything to do with seasonal madness. It’s a mispronunc­iation of the French venez m’aider (“come help me!”), believed to have been chosen as an alternativ­e to SOS by radio officer...
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