Why Do We Celebrate May Day?

Why Do We Celebrate May Day??

May Day bank holiday is normally an opportunity to make the most of a long weekend - whether it is visiting the beach, a weekend trip away or getting together with family and friends. Perhaps your local community celebrate May Day with customary festivities. However, did you know that May Day celebrations are rooted in ancient Celtic traditions, which signified the arrival of summer? Here we take an in-depth look at the origins of May Day, including how we celebrate here in Cornwall, along with some simple craft ideas to create your own May Day celebration at home.

May Day originates from an ancient spring festival and has become a traditional spring holiday throughout Europe. The festivities usually include dancing and singing, along with plenty of feasting. The earliest known May celebration was the Roman festival of Floralia, commemorating Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers.

Through the centuries, May Day has been associated with fun, revelry and fertility as it symbolizes the start of summer and new life. In the UK, May Day festivities have traditionally been marked by maypole dancing, morris dancing, the selection of a May Queen and a parade led by a Jack-In-The-Green figure. The character of Jack is usually dressed in green and covered in foliage. Today, towns and villages around the country will host an annual Jack-In-The-Green parade on May Day. 

Records show that traditional maypole dancing was established in England as early as the 15th century. These early maypoles were likely to have been made using young trees with ribbons pinned to the top for local children to dance around. Now, maypole dancing is a recognised artform, with weeks of rehearsals needed to ensure the dancing is well choreographed and the ribbons are beautifully woven around the pole.

How Did May Day Begin?

May Day celebrations are rooted in folklore customs from the Dark Ages, when the Celts divided their year with four main festivals. The ancient Celtic fire festival of Beltane is still celebrated today in Scotland, to welcome the first day of summer on May 1st. The festival centres on the lighting of bonfires, to symbolize purification and healing as well as to usher in a new season of fertility and growth.

In Wales, the first day of May is known as Calan Mai, drawing parallels with the festival of Beltane and other European May Day traditions. The night before May Day is known as spirit night, with bonfires lit and people decorating their homes with hawthorn and flowers, to symbolize new life and fertility.

Why Do We Celebrate May Day?

However, May Day celebrations have had their fair share of opposition over the years. In the sixteenth century, the Church took issue with the pagan roots of the festival and Henry VIII banned May Day celebrations. Riots broke out across the country in retaliation and fourteen rioters were hanged. May Day festivities had almost died out when Oliver Cromwell took control of the country following the Civil War in 1645. Calling maypole dancing, “a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness”, he passed legislation to remove maypoles from villages across the country.

May Day maypole Why Do we celebrate May Day

Fortunately, the restoration of Charles II, known as ‘The Merry Monarch’, allowed dancing and May Day celebrations to recommence on village greens once again. In fact, the King ordered the erection of a 40 metre high maypole on The Strand in London, to signify the return of public revelry and festivities as a way of ensuring his own enduring popularity. Today, maypoles can still be seen on the village greens at Welford-on-Avon and at Dunchurch, Warwickshire, both of which stand all year round. 

Despite the early opposition from state and Church, May Day festivities and traditions are thriving across the country today. Around the UK, there is a glorious array of traditions and events to mark May Day, with many unique festivities associated with local towns and villages. 

What Is The Padstow 'Obby 'Oss?

Just a few miles from Hot Pink Haberdashery, is the village of Padstow with it’s own unique May Day tradition - enjoyed by several members of staff over the years! 

Padstow’s Obby Oss celebrations have drawn thousands of people to its narrow harbour streets and lanes for many years. The Obby Oss is thought to be connected to the Celtic festival of Beltane, honouring the start of summer.

The May Day festivities start at midnight, as villagers gather outside the Golden Lion Inn to sing and move through Padstow’s winding streets. Early the next morning, people will decorate the town with flowers and foliage. The name Obby Oss, comes from hobby horse, as the parades are led by two stylized horse figures known as the Blue Ribbon Obby Oss and the Old Obby Oss. The Oss emerge from their respective stables during the morning to lead a procession of dancers, musicians and villagers through Padstow. Traditional family loyalties decide whether you follow the Blue Ribbon or the Old Oss.

Up until the First world war Padstow only had the Old Oss. However, in 1919 the Blue Ribbon Obby Oss was introduced. Known as the temperance or peace oss, supporters of the Blue Ribbon Oss tried to discourage the drunkenness that had become associated with the May Day procession. 

The obby oss outfits are worn by various members of each group throughout the parade, and a ‘teaser’ takes it in turn to lead each Oss through the town, waving a teaser club in the air. The two obby oss processions end at the maypole on Broad Street. As it starts to get dark, each Oss returns to their respective stables, accompanied by their supporters singing the 'Obby 'Oss death, a song to anticipate the Oss’ resurrection the following May Eve.The villagers meet up once again around the maypole at midnight to sing as May Day draws to a close.

How Can I Celebrate May Day At Home?

Having an extra long weekend is the perfect opportunity to get crafty. Whilst we aren’t able to join parades and public events just yet, there are still other ways we can celebrate and acknowledge May Day festivities with fun and revelry!

Felt Flower Crowns:

For children, making felt flower crowns can be a simple but fun activity! Using different coloured felt to make the flower petals, sew onto either a card band or a woven yarn band ready for your own May Queen or King! Alternatively, a crown of green foliage, made from green felt leaves, would be perfect for your own Jack-In-The-Green character!

May Day Feast:

Feasting is a big part of May Day, so if the weather is looking favorable create an outdoor banquet table, with a floral table runner from squares or a strip of fabric. Likewise, you can decorate your May Day table with flower craft to make it that little bit more celebratory. Of course, if the traditional Bank Holiday rain returns, just continue your feast indoors!

Nature Scavenger Hunt:

Another great activity for young children is to download some nature scavenger hunt ideas, so your children can hunt for types of flowers, trees and wildlife on a nature walk. A lovely way to celebrate new life and introduce children to the excitement of recognising the abundance of nature around us.

Bonfire With Marshmallows:

For older children and grown-ups alike, as the day draws to a close how about embracing the Celtic festival of fire by lighting your own bonfire. You can roast marshmallows and barbecue food, as you greet the summer season ahead.

May Day Baskets:

This is a tradition that has existed Stateside for years, and a lovely idea to brighten someone’s day. Make a card cone basket with a piece of string to hang on a door handle. Fill the cone with either homemade biscuits or other treats, then leave on a neighbour’s or family member’s doorstep, ready to surprise them. 

Paper Flower Craft:

An activity that suits adults and children alike and a beautiful way to decorate your home on May Day is to make some paper flowers. There are plenty of methods to be found on the internet. Cut strips of coloured paper, loop in half and glue the ends of the loop together. Create enough pieces to fan into a circle, forming the flower’s petals. Next cut a circular piece of paper and glue into the centre of the petals, adding a paper straw as the flower’s stem. Use a single flower to dress each table setting or a bunch of paper flowers to add May Day festive cheer to your home. 

We hope you have a very happy long weekend and enjoy your May Day festivities! If you are in the mood to get crafty or get sewing, Hot Pink Haberdashery is here for all your fabric, craft and haberdashery needs!

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