Happy May Day! Beltane, Walpurgisnacht, Maiouma, the festival goes by many names and is celebrated for many different reasons. From a Roman three day affair featuring hares, goats, feasting and debauchery to a solemn candlelit night-time vigil to commemorate a German saint delivering the nation from plague and pestilence, May Day is observed in just about every European country even if the original reason differs from region to region. The “Maias” of northern Portugal with it's focus on flowers to the three day “Majówka” in Poland established purely for political reasons, but what about here in Mercia?
In Britain the ceremony of Beltane was first described in the 900s by missionaries in the Gaelic lands bemoaning the survival of this tradition which probably dated back to the Bronze Age. Cattle would be driven – quickly – through fires constructed especially to allow them through and if they jumped the flames it was considered even luckier. The reason was to purify the cattle from infestation by any spirits before they were put out to the lush summer pastures, to protect their milk which people believed would be poisoned by fairies or elves. Over time, more people than cows were jumping through the fires to cleanse their body, mind and soul, with one version of the tradition getting pregnant women, or those trying, to run through the flames to purify the growing child.
The English May Day traditions are possibly the richest and most diverse of anywhere, with at least two dozen completely different ways to celebrate the day up and down the land. From the simple and classic May Queen parade to newer traditions such as crazy students at Oxford University jumping from the Magdalen Bridge into the shallow river and the famous Obby Oss in Somerset, quite similar to the Welsh Mari Lywd where a horse skull is worn by a man who leads a parade through the town. Many of these ceremonies do have a pagan origin to them, even if the link to the past has been broken an revived many times over and with long gaps in between, and the May Pole looms large in many of them. Anyone who is familiar with the annual Garland Day ceremony at Castleton in the Peak District, for example, will know that it ends at a Maypole in the town square.
Nobody is sure exactly how the Maypole tradition began but it appears to have links to earlier Germanic reverence of great trees and totem poles, the Irminsul for instance, and seems to be strongest in areas that have or had strong Germanic cultures. With both Anglo Saxon and Danish cultures in England it is no surprise that we do this, and here in Mercia we have two of the very few surviving permanent Maypoles left, including the very tallest in England at Offenham in Worcestershire. In more “normal” times the Offenham Maypole is danced around by a troupe of Morris dancers, the last lot being all female and included the local lady vicar...we've come a long way from the Maypole being condemned as “a heathen vanity, generally abused to superstition and witchcraft” by Cromwell's parliament!
In Bream in the Forest of Dean a new Maypole was raised on private land as near as possible to the site of the original one there and festivities revived, and while it featured the traditional round garland crown, in true Forest style an actual boar's head was attached to the pole halfway up! Unfortunately much of our Maypole celebrations have been put on hold in recent years, partly because of the current “situation” but for other reasons too. Today I discovered to my chagrin that today of all days the Offenham Maypole, tallest in England, had been taken down for repainting!
The Maypole is often held up (sorry!) as a phallic symbol and while this idea found it's way into the Wicker Man film many historians say it's just a symbol of growth and prosperity, the beginning of the lush summer days. With no public May Day celebrations going on in the Midlands we can perhaps content ourselves with the aforementioned movie tonight with it's “more dreadful sacrifice” and raise a glass – Hail, the Queen of the May!
The Maypole at Bream, Forest of Dean - complete with boar's head!
A fully female Morris troupe dance at the Offenham Maypole
The Morris ladies at Offenham - the tallest in England
The boys dance around the Maypole in the Wicker Man - "In the woods there was a tree, and a fine, fine tree was he..." etc