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May Day Festivities

The month of May takes its name from the Greek goddess, Maia. Traditionally May Day welcomed the start of the summer growing season and this was particularly important in rural England in past times. It was celebrated with music, Maypole dancing and games.

Even the Romans celebrated May Day with the Festival of Flora, goddess of flowers and fruit. The crowning of the May Queen harks back to the Roman Festival of Flora and is still part of many modern May Day celebrations.

In some places, May Day is known as Garland Day. Children would collect fresh flowers and make garlands which were fastened to a stick or hoop and paraded to collect money. The tradition still exists in Charlton-on-Otmoor in Oxfordshire.

Maypole Dancing Castleton (c) somewhereintheworldtoday via Flickr
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On May Day the wooden cross is taken down from above the rood screen and redecorated with fresh flowers and greenery. Children then parade with small decorated crosses and attend a special service in the church followed by a May Feast.

Maypole Dancing

Maypole dancing has its roots back in history when the tallest tree was cut down and the branches removed, leaving just greenery at the top to symbolize new life. Ribbons were attached and children danced around the maypole in opposite directions, weaving under and over the ribbons to create a beautifully plaited maypole.

Many village May Fairs still have Maypole dancing including St Ives, Padstow and Barwick-in-Elmet.

The tallest Maypole ever recorded was 43 metres (143 feet) tall. It was floated up the Thames and erected on the Strand in London in 1661, where it stood for 50 years.


Jack-in-the-Green is a figure synonymous with fresh spring growth and May Day celebrations. Villagers chose someone to be covered in greenery and act as Jack-in-the-Green for the day. He would often accompany stick-clashing Morris dancers. His leafy face can still be seen in folk art and in churches where he is carved into decorative woodwork or a roof boss.

Flora The Giant at Jack In The Green Festival (c) Nigel Chadwick via Wikimedia Commons
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Modern May Day Celebrations

Castleton Garland Day (c) somewhereintheworldtoday via Flickr
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Today the UK celebrates May Day with a Bank Holiday weekend. In 1890, May 1st was a day of demonstrations in favour of an 8-hour working day.

It became known as International Labour Day and is associated with the Socialism movement.

It is still considered a day to celebrate the social and economic reforms brought about for workers by the Labour movement.

A popular May Day tradition is the 'Obby 'Oss Day in Padstow when the festival focuses on two Hobby Horses, the Blue Ribbon Oss and the Old Oss, who dance in the street.

Another unique event is the Sweeps Festival in Rochester when chimney sweeps traditionally had a day off to enjoy dancing, singing and entertainment in the street.

May Day Superstitions

Garland King Wearing Garland (c) SiGarb via Wikimedia Commons
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On May Day it is said that if you wash your face in the morning dew you will have a beautiful complexion for the rest of the year. It is also believed to remove freckles and spots.

May was thought to be an unlucky month for marriage and gave rise to the saying, "Marry in May and you'll rue the day".

It was said you should never wash blankets in May or you would lose someone dear.

Finally, a wet May was thought to herald a bumper hay harvest.

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