Culture / England / English Festivals / Festivals

mayday, mayday, mayday! how to celebrate spring in england


okay, it’s a bit past the 1st of may now! – but i missed our traditional english celebrations while i was away on holiday, and it made me a little nostalgic for the warmth and joy of springtime in the countryside.

‘may day’, celebrated on the 1st of may, is a very old traditional festival celebrated mainly in northern europe. it comes from our ancient pagan roots, and in the case of england, celtic traditions – although later in history it was adapted to christian religions and mother mary and at one point, even banned.

every area of the uk has a different way to celebrate may day. usually it is more vigorously celebrated in the rural countrysides, and barely at all in the cities. the spirit of spring, solstice, and other naturalistic observances have been lost, leaving little colour and joy in life anymore … so i’m grateful to live somewhere that where fervour still exists.

the main event of may day is the maypole. it’s a large pole decorated head to toe with bright spring flowers and wrapped with ribbons. young girls or dancers will hold the ribbons and dance around the pole in circles, often singing as they go – it’s exuberant wild and free. throughout the whole day we will cloth ourselves in old-fashioned dresses and partake in morris dancing – an english folk dance based on rhythmic steps, accentuated by bells worn on the knees, accompanied by a pipe & tabor.


a painting of typical may pole dancers

there is a crowning of the ‘may queen’; a beautiful girl is decked in flowers, a stark white dress to symbolise purity, and a crown, and then proceeds to ride through the town on a horse to begin the may day celebrations. she is meant to become the personification of spring and summer, natures beauty expressed through the feminine spirit. it is said that when the festivities were over, pagan rites declared that the may queen must be put to death – the validity of this folklore is questioned, but it does bring a rather sinister twist on the spectacle.

may queens have inspired many english artists and authors to capture the solemn  enrapturing beauty of the event. famous poet alfred lord tennyson wrote this poem.

the honeysuckle round the porch has woven it’s wavy bowers,
and by the meadow-trenches blow the faint sweet cuckoo-flowers;
and the wild marsh-marigold shines like fire in swamps and hollows gray;
and i’m to be queen o’ the may, mother i’m to the queen o’ the may.

the night winds come and go, mother, upon the meadow-grass,
and the happy stars above them seem to brighten as they pass;
there will not be a drop of rain the whole of the livelong day;
and i’m to be queen o’ the may, mother, i’m to be queen o’ the may.

all the valley, mother, ‘ll be fresh and green and still,
and the cowslip and the crowfoot are over all the hill,
and the rivulet in the flowery dale ‘ll merrily glance and play,
for i’m to be queen o’ the may, mother, i’m to be queen o’ the may.


this is queen guinevere during her ‘maying’

of course, spring celebrations in ancient england would have focused also on the fertility of the land and blessing nature for it’s gifts. although this isn’t so common anymore, even in agricultural areas such as mine, there are villages which will decorate all the townhouses with completely in flowers, so the town becomes a living, breathing epitome of springtime.

‘may baskets’ are also anonymously given, woven with grasses and filled with flowers and gifts of produce. you leave them on a neighbours porch so everyone can enjoy the beginning of prosperity and life.

in seaside villages or towns such as mine, we have a tradition of casting off a boat decorated and covered entirely in bright flowers – there is a procession of red&white clad people pushing the boat through the street and down the quay until we reach the beach, where it set free and never seen again. in other places, the evening before – just before midnight – everyone runs towards the sea and takes a naked bathe before making their way home with bright candle lights, singing and dancing.

A merchant and his shikara (boat) loaded with flowers, Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir, Jammu and Kashmir State, India.

flower boat


padstow (a small town in cornwall, south-west england) is famous for it’s ‘obby-oss (hobby horse) ritual, a rather more strange tradition. it’s known as one of the oldest fertility rites in the uk, although it’s not reenacted in it’s entirety now in our more modern times. a fertility rite is a ritual which mimics sex and reproduction, whether that’s literal&physically or symbolically. one person dresses as  old ‘oss, and another as blue ribbon ‘oss; both are clad in blankets, horse heads and tails protruding from their bodies and a gruesome mask over their heads. the rival horses are prodded through the streets as they try to capture young “maidens” under their blankets. at the end of the day they both dance around the maypole while revellers sing the death of ‘obby ‘oss.

have you ever experienced any of these traditions first hand? does your country celebrate may day too? had you heard of it before now? let me know!


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