Why do we celebrate May Day at all?
The origins of May Day are pre-Christian, when its position approximately halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice led to it being revered as the first day of summer on the pagan calendar. The Celts called the festival ‘Beltane’, Bel being their god of the Sun. On this day, the Roman flower goddess, Flora, was also celebrated. The tradition of a May Day celebration survived the decline of paganism thanks to efforts by the Church to obscure the pagan festival with Roodmas, a rival Christian mass. The festivities associated with May Day were smothered by Puritanism under Oliver Cromwell but revived with the Restoration of Charles II in 1660. May 1st is also celebrated around the world as International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day.
What exactly happens in Oxford?
At 6am on May Morning crowds throng The High around Magdalen College to hear the choir sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of Magdalen Tower. After this, the college bells signal the start of festivities, including Morris Dancing and live music, throughout the city.
Many cafés and restaurants open early to serve the revellers a May Morning breakfast and other college choirs perform their own hymns. It is spuriously reported that there is a tradition of jumping into the Cherwell from Magdalen Bridge; the practice emerged in the 1970s and has had a history of injuries ever since. The police now prevent access to the bridge on May morning – making the jump an even bigger challenge for some.
How is May Day changing?
May Day certainly isn’t going anywhere in a hurry, but it may be changing. It has been reported that Oxford Council’s budget cuts will hit the celebration this year and in the future. The costs of decoration, live music, performers and police are all considered too high and will lead to scaling-down of festivities in 2009. Further pressure has been applied in recent years by the cost of closing Magdalen Bridge to prevent ‘jumpers’; the council denies that this is a significant factor. On the bright side, some changes may be for the good. In particular the diversity of the acts to be seen around Oxford is growing every year, including modern dance and martial arts displays.
What goes on elsewhere to celebrate?
May Day celebrations around the country offer a glimpse into the eccentricity of rural Britain. Many towns and villages still erect maypoles on their greens for people to dance around; this emerged as a fertility ritual and an opportunity for matchmaking among the young. Barwick in Yorkshire, claims the largest maypole in England, standing some 30 meters in height. There is also typically the crowning of the May Queen who is paired up with the village effigy of the Green Man, both traditions hailing back to Roman and Celtic folklore. In Padstow, townsfolk celebrate with the ‘Obby ‘Oss (Hobby Horse, though it does not resemble a horse). Two horses, the Old Oss and the Blue Ribbon Oss, set out from rival pubs and parade until they meet raucously in the centre of town. Kendal in Cumbria holds a medieval street market with costumes and music. There is also the famous cheese-rolling in Gloucester and the Tetbury Wool Sack Race. In London, the Beltane Bash is recognised as the world’s oldest Pagan Pride Parade, attracting thousands of modern day practitioners of ancient spiritualism.
Are there any memorable May Days in history?
On May Day 1517, xenophobic riots in London led to troops entering the capital, mass arrests and a 9pm curfew the night before. 14 rioters were hung, drawn and quartered, 400 more were pardoned by Henry VIII.
On May Day 1707, the Act of Union came into effect, uniting Scotland and England.
In the United States, May Day 1886 saw strike action by hundreds of thousands of Americans in support of an eight-hour day.
On May Day 1997, Tony Blair became PM after Labour won the general election
On May Day 2005, a record 40 people were injured in Oxford after jumping off Magdalen Bridge into the Cherwell – the police have since closed the bridge every year.