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May Day and How to Fight For Your Right to Party

By Edie Cay
April 17, 2023
From the sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt, a 13th century master mason. These show sketches of The Green Man motif that can be found in cathedrals and other buildings in England and other parts of Europe.

When I was a child, May Day was an exciting time. We didn’t have a May Pole (too pagan), but we did make little baskets from dixie cups and pipe cleaners, filled them with candy, and doorbell ditched our friends. I remember running as fast as I could back to my mom’s brown station wagon when my friend’s older brother caught me and acted upon tradition by giving me a huge kiss on the cheek. I was utterly disgusted. And probably about six years old.

A few years later, my family moved to California where that tradition wasn’t practiced. Some places had community Maypoles, others street fairs, but nothing so structured as doorbell ditching candy for your friends.

But May Day traditions in Regency England, now, that was a party.

The ancient Celts considered this time to be the beginning of summer, practicing Beltane on roughly May 1st. It was a time to celebrate rebirth, flowers, fertility. Into the sixteenth century, all over England, communities had variations of the celebration, but typically included flower-picking, Maypoles, May Queens dressed in white, Morris dancers (rhythmic folk dancing that includes bells and sticks), and at least one Green Man parading about town. May Poles were erected in town squares, and in some places, week-long fairs took place.

The Green Man, sometimes referred to as Jack in Green, or Jack o’ the Green, was possibly leftover from pagan tree worship, or maybe some wreath decorating that got out of hand. Dressed in a wire cage shaped like a tree and then covered in foliage so he resembled a modern Christmas nightmare, he was first found in London, accompanied by the chimney sweeps who took May 1st as their sole holiday of the year. The triangular, walking-Christmas tree, Jack in the Green, first appeared in newspapers in 1775, though the tradition of the Green Man is far more ancient.

  (Interesting to note that the fancy-pants area of London, Mayfair, got its name from its years spent as the swamp where fairs were held in the early month of May. Later, it got the land development treatment, and rich people took up residence.)

After the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell and his party-poopers took over the government

The Puritans banned May Day celebrations and tore down Maypoles, and generally outlawed fun. Prior to Cromwell, London boasted several permanent Maypoles, the most famous being in The Strand, which was said to be 100 feet tall. It was cut down by the Cromwell government, but upon the Restoration of King Charles II, “the merry monarch,” May Day celebrations recommenced. A new Maypole was erected, made of cedar, and said to be 134 feet tall. Eventually, it rotted and had to be taken down, and then eventually, that one too, had to be removed—where it was oddly enough bought by Sir Isaac Newton in 1717 and gifted to another scientist friend to affix a lens that needed a focal length of 123 feet. Rebirth indeed.

A 19th-century engraving of Cpt. Miles Standish and his men observing the ‘immoral’ behavior of the Maypole festivities of 1628 at Merrymount. Standish and co. are engaged in transatlantic party-pooping. “You! Down there! No laughing!”

By the late 18th century, chimney sweeps and milkmaids were out dancing in the street, and a few wealthy ladies handed out delicacies to treat them. Mrs. Montagu, in 1797, handed out roast beef, roast mutton, plumb-pudding and shillings, while crowds attended her lawn to watch the chimney sweeps and milkmaids dance, and the Jack in the Green drink from his tankards. Even the Duchess of York stopped by to watch the antics. It was probably a heckuva good time.

As for this May Day, what will you do to celebrate?

Make tiny baskets from dixie cups and pipe cleaners and fill them with cheap candy to leave on friends’ doorsteps? Really?

Yeah, me neither. I will, however, be taking my kid to a May Day event at his school that has a smaller Maypole (definitely not 134 feet tall, nor made of cedar), where some children have learned dances. It’s funny to me which traditions stay and which ones go over the years, and which cultures pick up the traditions of another.

Here’s wishing you a happy Spring, and a fun-filled May. The sentiment can be found in the verse from below the May Day etching from 1795:


‘We’ll banish Care, and all his Train
Nor thought of Sadness round us play
Fly distant hence, corroding pain
For happiness shall crown this Day.’

A street scene. An elderly man and woman, wearing tawdry finery, dance opposite each other, to the music of a wooden-legged fiddler (left). Between and behind them a grinning face looks from a pyramid of greenery, supported on the feet of the Jack in the Green. A couple of chimney-sweeps dance in the middle distance on the extreme right, and in the background (left) two other climbing-boys on a tiny scale dance together.

 

 

Sources:

https://janeaustensworld.com/category/may-day-celebration/

https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/May-Day-Celebrations/

https://thebeaumonde.com/main/may-day-traditions/#:~:text=In%20parts%20of%20England%2C%20May,walked%20them%20once%20a%20year.

 

Edie Cay
Written by Edie Cay

Edie Cay writes award-winning feminist Regency Romance about women’s boxing and relatable misfits. She is a member of the Regency Fiction Writers, the Historical Novel Society, ALLi, and a founding member of Paper Lantern Writers. You can drop her a line on Facebook and Instagram @authorediecay or find her on her website, www.ediecay.com

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