May Day – traditions and celebrations in England

may day traditionsMay Day is the festival of the Spring, popular across the Northern Hemisphere as a time for various traditions. It is celebrated on the 1st of May, and in many countries coincides with International Workers’ Day. In the UK, the focus is on Spring fertility, with dances and traditions celebrating the changing weather. Like many British celebrations, these traditions have pagan origins, combined with Celtic traditions.

What are the English May Day traditions

On May Day, English people often gather outside for dances and parties. It has a community focus, often associated with small towns, villages and schools, so gatherings are likely to occur in parks, commons and schools.

There are two special traditional dances you may see – morris dancing and the dance around the Maypole. The maypole dance involves a group of dancers circling a large pole with ribbons, wrapping the ribbons around it in different directions and patterns.

Some towns and villages have had relatively recent revivals of May Day celebrations, particularly bringing back “Jack in the Green” traditions. The Jack in the Green is a man decorated with greenery and flowers, who often leads a May Day procession accompanied by musicians and dancers. The costumes often reach 3m (9ft) tall, and can be a source of competition in the local community.

May Day Bank Holiday

There is a bank holiday associated with May Day, a day when all workers should have a day off, and schools are closed. This does not always happen on May Day itself, as it takes place on the first Monday of May – so if the 1st of May does not come on a Monday, the bank holiday will be on the following Monday, in the next week. The bank holiday itself is a relatively new tradition – it was only started in 1978.

Who celebrates May Day

May Day was originally a celebration associated with farming and fertility for the land and livestock. It comes at a time when the seeds are sown, when farm workers have earned a good rest. With agriculture such a small part of English society now, not many people continue these traditions. Instead, it has become a community party, where the celebrations are often organised by local councils or institutions. Many English schools put on May Day celebrations, with children organised to dance around the Maypole, and other communities may put on fetes, with fun and games. These are family celebrations which usually take place during the day. Night-time parties and celebrations usually occur the day before.

Some specific locations across the country have their own May Day traditions. In London, there is a May Day march and rally, which includes speeches from trade unions (heavily emphasising the worker aspect of the day). In Oxford, people gather before the Great Tower of Magdalen at dawn, with choir singing. In Maidstone, morris dancers dance across Barming Bridge to open the new morris dancing season; while in Cornwall an annual Obby-Oss (Hobby Horse) day is held, with dancers moving through the town singing a May Day song. In Scotland, large festivals and rallies are held, including Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Festival, held on the evening before May Day.

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