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MAY DAY / ART MAIN
May Day

May Day is not found in the Church calendar, but it is an ancient festival, and was observed for many centuries, if not exactly as a holy day, certainly as a holiday, a time of rejoicing and gladness.

The name of the fifth month is derived from a word signifying ‘to grow’, indicating that May has always been considered in European latitudes as a time of regeneration.

In Italy, the people of ancient Rome honoured Flora, the goddess of flowers and springtime, with a festival called Florialia. A small statue wreathed in garlands represented the goddess and a procession of singers and dancers carried the statue past a sacred blossom-decked tree. Later, festivals of this kind spread to other lands conquered by the Romans.

Solomon’s Song contains a poetic allusion to the season in beautiful words: ‘For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the turtle is heard in our land.’ The Romans had their floral games to greet the coming in of May, and in England, for centuries, it was a time for holding high festival. Chaucer informs us that it was customary for all, both high and low - even the court itself - to go out on the first May morning at an early hour ‘to fetch the flowers afresh.’

Hawthorn branches were also gathered. These were brought home at sunrise with merry music on horn arid tabor. The hawthorn bloom soon gained the name of May, and the journey to the woods to gather it was called going a-maying. The history of the reign of Henry VIII records how the stately Corporation of London went into Kent to gather May, and were met at Shooter’ s Hill by Henry arid Katherine of Aragon, who came from Greenwich Palace.

The festivals begun in Italy reached their height in England during the Middle Ages. The most conspicuous feature of May Day festivities in every town and village became the towering maypole, usually made of the trunk of a tall birch tree, the height of which was not to be less than that of a mast of a hundred ton vessel. The pole was covered with wreaths of flowers, and round this a constant stream of villagers danced and sang throughout the day, accompanied by a piper and Morris dancers. In Elizabethan times, the fairest maiden of the village was chosen queen of the May and a May king was sometimes appointed too. Together they led the village dancers and ruled over the festivities.

Maypoles were usually set up for the day in small towns, but in London and the larger cities they were permanent installations. May Day festivals became so raucous and wild that the Puritans were able to force the government to forbid them. Considering maypoles to be heathen eyesores, the Puritans abolished the ancient custom and uprooted all the evidence. The church of St. Andrew Undershaft, St. Mary Axe, marks the site of a very celebrated maypole, the name signifying that the pole in front was higher than the church, but after a denigrating sermon at St. Paul’s Cross the pole was destroyed.  When the ‘merry monarch’ restored the May Day rites, the City of London and the villages soon revived the tradition that continues today.

The French consider the month of May sacred to the Virgin Mary, so they enshrine young girls as May queens in their churches who lead processions in honour or the Virgin Mary. Cows also play important roles in French May Day festivals. Bunches of flowers are tied and draped around their tails as they are led in parades. Everyone tries to touch the cows because it is believed to bring good fortune and on May Day morning, people drink milk still warm from the milking to assure good luck during the year.

Greek children set out early in the morning to search for the first swallow of spring. When the bird is located, the children go from door to door singing songs of spring. For their efforts, neighbours offer special treats to eat, such as fruits, nuts, and cakes.

In England, there's little to rival Oxford's May Day celebrations. Centuries old traditions are upheld with undying enthusiasm by the youthful population of this student town, who gather in their thousands every year to hear the choir of Magdalen college sing in the new May dawn from the top of their chapel tower.

The events starts on the preceding night (30 April) with parties throughout the town, the best being a huge outdoor affair at Port Meadow - a field that has been common land (where building is forbidden) since medieval times. Although most revellers forsake the meadow for the bridge during the early hours of the morning, insomniacs who you stay around till sunrise will see Morris Dancers appear, complete with trademark bells round their ankles, to dance in the new day.

The crowds gather at the bridge from about 5am - it's a good idea to get there early for a spot. Usually, foolhardy students attempt spectacular jump into the rushing Cherwell river, which is not more than about six feet deep and the bridge quite high enough to break a leg.  As the choir starts to sing the Medieval Eucharist hymn, the raucous crowd hushes. No one knows when the tradition of May Day dawn singing began, but records go back to the 17th century, and it could stretch back further still. Whenever it started, the beauty of the ethereal voices of the boy choir soaring out into sudden silence is incredibly moving.

After the singing the crowd gradually disperses, many flocking to the breakfast picnics thrown in the college gardens, impromptu cricket matches, and the many pubs that open early by special dispensation to sustain the flagging revellers.

Alternatively, you may prefer to see in the start of spring the West Country way. If so, prepare yourself for a strange assault by an overgrown hobby horse - it could make you fertile.

Every May Day, the streets of Padstow fill with revellers who watch in amazement as two black-clothed hobby horses, with big red eyes and snapping teeth, make a bee-line for every woman they pass, drawing them under their cloaks and daubing them with coal. To be caught under the hobby horse's skirt is thought to be good luck and even fertility-inducing! Such bizarre goings-on were first recorded in the 16th century and continue today as fertility rituals, held to mark the coming of summer.

The fun in Padstow, a fishing village on the stunning north coast of Cornwall, actually begins just before midnight on April 30 when locals gather in the town square around the maypole and then proceed to the Golden Lion Inn where they sing beneath the keeper's window to wake him with the news that 'summer is a-come'. They continue their trouble-making, waking various other residents of the village before retiring to bed in time for the next day's celebrations.

At 10am the next morning, the 'Old Original Oss' (a man dressed in the hobby horse costume) comes out of the Golden Lion with the 'teazer' and they begin dancing through the streets, surrounded by crowds and followed by men dressed in white who dance and play an insistent drum beat, which can be heard all over town. When the beat stops, the hobby horse sinks to the ground, rising only when the beat begins again.

The teazer and the hobby horse dance together, mimicking each other's movements, in a procession through the streets, which are especially decorated for the occasion with bluebells, hazel twigs and other spring-like paraphernalia. It is traditional for onlookers to drink plenty of the local ale - in past years they have run the brewers dry - for this Bacchanalian ritual is taken seriously by the locals.

Timothy Foster 

"May Day" by Wilkie Collins"
May Day celebrations were often boisterous and chimney sweeps traditionally dressed up and danced through the streets demanding money. The picture also shows a young woman with a May Doll, covered by a cloth, and demanding a penny to see it.

Wilkie Collins says little about May-day in his biography of his father. It was he says "considered to display the same steady progression towards excellence as those which had preceded" and he quotes this contemporary review:- "Mr Collins has attained to a very high degree of success in this picture. The characters are various and natural, and of all ages. The groups are well distributed, and employed in a combined purpose, so that each several assists the humour and action of the whole. There is great mellowness and richness in the humour of the several faces, particularly in the countenance of the drunken chimney-sweeper. Upon the whole, this piece has more imagination and shows greater knowledge of life, than the 'Weary Trumpeter,' by the same artist."
  
Rienzi, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's European decorative arts collection, hosts its first curated exhibition. Inspired by the writings of Mrs. Elizabeth Raffald, an 18th century Martha Stewart, food historian Ivan Day walks us through what a special meal would look like at the table of an English aristocrat.