May Day traditions and origins – spot of Morris Dancing anyone?
May Day traditions and origins – why do we celebrate it and where do Morris Dancing and Maypole dancing come from?
What did you do with your loved ones this May Day? It was a Bank Holiday, so immediately there is the promise of a lovely long weekend. It was a mixture of hot, cold and windy all rolled into one.
Last weekend was the official start of the ‘Morris Season’. And as a long term ‘folkie’ and as my Husband is a member of a few Morris teams, May 1st is a big day for us.
For us it all started at 5.32am at Blue Bell Hill nr Rochester Kent, Seeing the sun rise and awakening the Jack. (big green bush) He was believed to be a woodland spirit who guarded the green woods in England. He was popular across rural England who hoped that he would bring a fertile harvest.
There after we spent a long weekend at Rochester Sweeps Festival.
May is the time of the year when the warmer weather begins and flowers and trees start to blossom. Many say that it is the time for love, romance and fertility its also associated with the celebrations of the coming of the summer festivals.
The history of May Day
It is an ancient spring festival that pre-dates Christian times. The earliest record of it is found in Roman times, with a festival called Floralia, the festival of Flora, who was the Roman goddess of flowers. This was held between April 28th and May 3rd. It was seen as a traditional summer holiday then to celebrate the fertility in the soil. February the 1st was the first day of spring and May the 1st was the first day of summer, which is where we get the summer solstice on 21st June was seen as mid-summer.
Records also show it as a Celtic and Saxon pagan festival called Beltane, after Bel the Celtic God of the Sun and fire, and it falls exactly 6 months – half a year after November the 1st which marks many neo-pagan festivals. The Celts would roll wheels of fire down hillsides and lit bonfires in a ceremony of purification.
In medieval times May Day found itself being dedicated to Robin Hood and there were songs and plays performed to celebrate the coming of spring in Britain.
In the 17th Century it was popular to decorate houses. Early in the morning people would go out and gather flowers to decorate their houses and village squares with the belief that the spirits of vegetation would bring them good fortune. Young girls would wash their faces in the morning dew believing that it made them beautiful for the rest of the year.
One traditions called Beating the Bounds are carried out on May Day and it involved the owner of land or property to walk around the boundary to reafirm their rights to it.
This spread throughout Europe and became popular in England where people would dance around them to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring when they could begin to plant their crops.
The Victorian’s gave it a boost in popularity in the 19th century when they saw it as an old fashioned fancy. However they ignored some of the pagan traditions which did not suit their straight laced ways and Maypole dancing changed from a fertility dance to a game for children.
The tallest maypole recorded was erected in the Strand in London in 1661. It stood over 143 feet high and was felled in 1717 when it was used by Isaac Newton to support Huygen’s new reflecting telescope!
This is a traditional dance, going back to the middle ages, The dancing is lively and colourful and is accompanied by music, such as an accordion, drum and fiddle.
Morris dancing was traditionally done by men how ever nowadays there are more women morris dancers than men! they wear different clothing depending on where they come from wearing coloured belts – called baldricks which are strapped around chests. They also wear hats and have ribbons and bells around their legs and ankles.
Traditionally there are six to eight in a group they normally carry handkerchiefs or sticks which they shake and bang respectively as they dance. Nowadays numbers do not count as there are teams of all sizes from 2 to up of 20 plus dancers at a time.
Mayfair in London was names after a particularly raucous and debauched festival held in the 17th century called the May Fayre, which had been moved from Hay market in 1686. Parliament tried to stop it several times and the only way they managed to do it was to build houses on the site, which is the Mayfair that we know today.
It wasn’t until 1978 that the May Day bank holiday was established in the national calendar by the Labour Government.
Kent has many festivals between May and October,
Rochester Sweeps in May, Whistable Oyster Festival, and finishing with Tenterden Folk Day in October – to name a few!
I have been a ‘folkie’ and morris dancer for over the last 30 years. I love the banter and the feeling of fun amongst friends. Morris has no boundary, its there for all ages and gender and is taught through families and friends and hence the tradition continues and evolves, and may it continue to be passed on and enjoyed for future times.
Green man art work, by Trisha Wood which can be purchased as print or gift card via