May Day in the UK: Discover the Most English Folklore. You know we love to write about English culture, and today is the day to discover what May Day in the UK is all about. Do you know it? It’s a festival that is celebrated on the first day of the month of May. We recommend that you keep reading to find out what to expect, especially if you’re considering spending an academic year in England. There is nothing like a linguistic immersion experience to really know what a country is like.
What is celebrated on May Day?
Firstly, this day has nothing to do with the word mayday, the popular distress call used in the field of aviation, May Day refers to the first day of the month of May. Not all May the 1st are bank holidays; this only happens when the 1st falls on a Monday.
May Day in the UK celebrates the arrival of summer, or more specifically, of good weather and in this country, this is always a good reason to have a celebration, but as you know already, the 1st of May is also an important day as it’s the international day of the worker.
The Origin of May Day in the UK
This festival has been celebrated for more than 2000 years and the seed of this celebration is found with the Celtic people, who, at the time, commemorated the beginning of summer by holding a festival called Beltane (which, in fact, still takes place today).
The romans dedicated this day to the goddess Flora. To do this, they cut a large log and decorated it with flowers and ribbons and sometime later, it became a very representative tradition of May Day in the UK: the famous dance of the ribbons (Maypole dancing).
Between the 16th and 17th centuries, the tradition of creating garlands of flowers and leaves spread as it was a true work of natural art. At the end of the 18th century, the first garland competitions began, the garland had to be worn around the body like a costume and could include pieces of silver. As very little of the person wearing the costume would be seen they began to be called Jack in the Green. There is evidence of a procession in the city of Hastings in 1889, which continues to this day.
May Day in the UK Today
One of the advantages of learning English abroad is being able to enjoy the traditional customs of the chosen destination.
This celebration has changed a lot throughout history meaning that what is celebrated today retains very little resemblance to the traditional acts.
To begin with, May Day is not celebrated throughout the whole country, it’s a celebration that takes place in small towns and cities and it’s a very special occasion where you can allow yourself to be carried away by British culture.
Although each festival is different, the typical things that happen is that people gather in a key part of the town and decorate the area with poles full of coloured garlands and flowers, this is a modern version of Maypole dancing. This pole symbolises the end of winter.
Another important ritual of this day is the crowning of the Queen of May (May Queen), which is usually chosen among the girls. Also, the processions of people disguised as Jack in the Green and the Morris dancing, where dancers use, swords, handkerchiefs and sticks whilst dancing are also common.
In the county of Cornwall, it’s a tradition to go outside and join the Obby Oss Festival, where several people dress up as horses. There are two horses, the Old Oss, decorated in red and white, and the Blue Ribbon Oss, decorated in blue and white. Each has its own followers, and people dress in the colours of the one they support. It is a somewhat different celebration of the May Day in the UK, which also takes place in Minehead (Somerset) and Combe Martin (Devon).
One of the most emblematic celebrations of May Day is in Oxford. People gather at 6am on Magdalen Bridge, to hear the traditional madrigals sung by the university choir on a rooftop. One of the most reckless and recent customs is to jump off the bridge into the river Cherwell. After that, the Ashmolean Museum serves a typical English Breakfast on the terrace whilst enjoying a Morris Dancing performance at around 10am.
There are other festivals and rituals that take place in Rochester (Sweeps Festival), Berwick-Upon-Tweed (Riding of the Bounds), Kingsbury Episcopi (May Day Festival) and in Edinburgh (Beltane Fire Festival), among others.
Enjoy the beauty of this traditional dance and we hope you have found this post interesting.