When is May Day, what's the history and traditional events to celebrate

May Day marks the start of warmer weather and blossom filled trees and flowers, and is traditionally a Bank Holiday in the UK. Our guide to May Day history and traditions and ideas on how to celebrate this fun spring day.
1st May 2018
Maypole Dancing at Chatsworth House/Credit: Getty

When is May Day?

May Day is traditionally a public holiday in the UK celebrated on 1 May. However, in 2018 the May Day bank holiday takes place on Monday 7 May. 

The history and traditions of May Day

The celebration of May Day dates back to ancient times, when Romans celebrated the festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers and spring. In Britain, Celtic people celebrated the festival of Beltane on the first of May to mark the halfway point between spring and summer, in contrast to the festival of Samain that fell hallway between autumn and winter on November 1.

Many of the old customs celebrating new life and fertility survive to this day, including Morris dancing and dancing around the maypole.

Sixteenth century people dancing around a traditional Maypole in an English village./Credit: Getty
Sixteenth century people dancing around a traditional Maypole in an English village. Credit: Getty

The earliest maypoles were probably young trees chopped down and erected on the village green with ribbons pinned to the top for local children to dance around. Today rehearsals often take place weeks in advance to ensure that the ribbons form artful plaits around the maypole instead of a tangled web of knots.

Morris Dancing traditions

Morris men dance in the sunrise
Morris Men seeing in the 1st May © Getty 

Despite often being the butt of jokes, Morris dancers are in high demand on May Day, performing at pubs and on village greens up and down the country. Many Morris dancers dance in the dawn, including the Wessex Morris Men who climb above the Cerne Abbas Giant at 5.15am and the Men of Wight who circle the megalithic Longstone at Mottistone as the sun comes up. Morris dancing dates back at least 600 years although it is unclear where the dance style came from, or what it represents. The majority of groups that exist today were formed after the 1930s, basing their dancing style on information collected by folklorists, although some  groups, including those at Abingdon and Chipping Campden, can trace their routes back to the 1800s.

Dressing up in strange costumes appears to be a running theme when it comes to celebrating May Day, and nothing beats the attire of Jack in the Green, who wears a foliage-covered frame work in May Day parades. It is widely believed that the Jack represents the Green Man, a symbol of fertility, but Jacks have also adopted sometimes adopted the cheeky character of Puck.

Although many May Day celebrations date back centuries, they vary from place to place. We’ve rounded up five examples of classic May Day celebrations that take places this weekend.

Traditional May Day events not to miss

The May Day celebrations have altered from their ancient folk roots, differentiating in each of the communities, which still embrace the traditions. Local events such as Maypole dances and country fairs are commonplace for May Day Bank Holiday and make for a great family day out.

The Clun Green Man Festival, Shropshire 

The Green Man
The spirit of nature, The Green Man © Getty 

Crowds will gather on Clun Bridge to witness the Green Mandefeat the Frost Queen to ensure there is a summer in the valley. The leafy face of the Green Man represents nature, fertility, and the cycle of death and rebirth. After his victory the Green Man will lead a garland-festooned parade to the grounds of Clun Castlewww.clungreenman.org

Beltane Fire Festival, Edinburgh 

Ceremony by fire light at Beltane Fire Festival © Getty
Ceremony by fire light at Beltane Fire Festival/Credit: Getty 

In Britain, Celtic people celebrated the festival of Beltane on the first of May to mark the halfway point between spring and summer.

On the evening of the 30 April, several thousand people will congregate at Calton Hill in the centre of Edinburgh, continuing these celebrations with the Beltane Fire Festival. The spectacle includes dazzling fire displays, drumming, processions and plenty of body paint. The fire festival of Beltane is a revitalised celebration of Celtic culture the fire believed to cleanse, purify and increase fertility of all the festival participants. Edinburgh's festival will involve around three hundred voluntary performers, marking the end of the Scottish winter and welcoming the summer season ahead with optimism.

Jack-in-the-Green Festival, Hastings

Costumed people parade through the Old Town during the annual Jack In The Green festival. The event marks the May Day public holiday in Britain.
Costumed people parade through the Old Town during the annual Jack In The Green festival. The event marks the May Day public holiday in Britain. /Credit: Getty

Dressing up in strange costumes appears to be a running theme when it comes to celebrating May Day, and nothing beats the attire of Jack in the Green, who wears a foliage-covered frame work in May Day parades. It is widely believed that the Jack represents the Green Man, a symbol of fertility, but Jacks have also adopted sometimes adopted the cheeky character of Puck.

Hastings celebrates the start of summer with an annual May Day Jack-in-the-Green festival. Look out for the procession following The Release of the Jack, culminating in The Slaying of the Jack, representing the release of the Spirit of Summer. Expect Morris Dancing, poetry, live music and high jinks.

Jack in the Green, Rochester Sweeps Festival, Kent

In the 17th century the making of garlands for May Day inspired so much competition that the greenery eventually covered the entire person – who became a 9-foot tall Jack in the Green. Recently revived after the Victorians tried to kill it off, a number of Jack in the Green events are
re-emerging in the 21st century. The Rochester Sweeps festival runs from 29 April until 1 May.

Obby Osses Day, Padstow

Crowds around the maypole at the Padstow May Day 'Obby 'Oss Day Festival, Cornwall, UK/Credit: Getty
Crowds around the maypole at the Padstow May Day 'Obby 'Oss Day Festival, Cornwall/Credit: Getty

Padstow comes alive with the sound of music and merriment and the wild dancing of two ominous-looking ‘Osses on 1st May. The stars of the show are the two ‘Obby ‘Osses – each one consisting of a 6ft wide wooden hoop draped in black sail cloth and hoisted onto a fearsomely, masked local chap. They prance through the town followed by a troupe of musicians, singers, drummers and dancers. In Minehead, Somerset, the 500 year-old tradition sees three separate Hobby Horses (‘Obby ‘Osses), parade the streets during the May holiday, culminating in Boogie night.

Riding of the Bounds, Berwick-Upon-Tweed

Berwick-upon-Tweed will be holding the 401st riding of the bounds on 1 May at 09:30am. Berwick's bounds date back to 1438 when representatives from England and Scotland agreed where one country would end and where the other would begin. The bounds of Berwick were patrolled as early as 1542. This was to protect the town against encroachment by the Scots. Watch the 150 horsemen and women parade through the town from the Barracks to the Guildhall before beginning their ride to continue this tradition.  www.visitnorthumberland.com

Helston Flora and Furry Dance, Cornwall

Performers with the Hal-an-Tow pageant take part in a performance as part of the Helston Flora Day celebrations/Credit: Getty
Performers with the Hal-an-Tow pageant take part in a performance as part of the Helston Flora Day celebrations/Credit: Getty

Every May, thousands of people take to the streets of Helston for a Cornish festival that's "bigger than Christmas". This year's event takes place on 6 May, when Helston hosts the famous Furry Dance. The town will conjure a carnival atmosphere and be decked with beautiful flowers. Dancing begins early, followed by the seasonal folk play, Hal-an-Tow, which is staged at several venues throughout the town.www.helston-online.co.uk 

The Hunting of the Earl of Rone, Combe Martin, Devon.

Possibly one of the strangest things to happen in Britain, this event is based on a fictional chapter of ‘history’, this year held from 26-29 May.
A fool and a hobby horse, accompanied by grenadiers, search the village for the Earl of Tyrone. He is finally captured, mounted on a donkey and paraded through the village, repeatedly shot and revived, shot one last time, taken to the beach and thrown in the sea.

Castleton Garland, Peak District

Elements of beating the bounds, Oak Apple Day (a commemoration of the restoration of Charles II in 1660) and traditional spring festival all appear to collide in this colourful ceremony, usually held on 29 May. A beehive shaped head-dress, covered with wildflowers and greenery, is worn over the head and shoulders of the Garland King, who is dressed in Stuart costume. There is a parade and dancing, accompanied by girls from the village school. The Garland, now separated from its wearer, is hoisted up the church tower and impaled on the pinnacle. Maypole dancing rounds off the big day. The tune used for the procession is similar to that of Helston’s The Faddy.

 

Main image: Maypole Dancing at Chatsworth House/Getty

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