Below is a fairly long excerpt from "Holidays: Christmas, Easter, and other Whitsuntide" ©1876 about May Day. When I was the third grade I had the unique experience to attend a two room school house. In my room was 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades. My very first experience with May Day happened at this wonderful place. Don't get me wrong there were trying moments as there are with any school grade but I still cherish that year of my schooling. Now our May Day celebration wasn't as elaborate as the one mentioned below but it was a wonderful day and an incredible experience. My youngest son, Tim, had the advantage of going to a pre-school when he was three years old and he learned how to use the May Pole. I have several photos of him working the ribbons around the maypole with the other students. Today, we hardly hear of May Day, perhaps this tidbit will challenge you to have a unique experience for your characters.
THE Mayday customs are supposed by some antiquarians to have been derived from the Roman F1 o r a 1 i a, which began on the twenty-eighth of April, and continued through several days in May. This festival appears to have been instituted about 242 B. c. in honor of a celebrated courtezan named Flora, who bequeathed her fortune to the people of Rome on condition that at this season, they should yearly celebrate her memory. Soon after, the Senate of Rome exalted Flora to be the goddess of flowers, and from that time her festival was observed with various ceremonies, rejoicings, and offering of spring flowers and branches of trees in bloom.
But Mr. Soane and others maintain that the Mayday festival has come down to us from the Druids, and that this is proved by many striking facts and coincidences, and by none more so than by the vestiges of the worship of the god Bel, the Apollo or Orus of other nations. The Druids celebrated his worship on the first of May, by lighting in honor of him, immense fires upon the various cairns.
Whether the May-day festival be of Druidical or of Roman origin, or as Toilet imagines, derived from our Gothic ancestors, who also welcomed the First of May with songs and dances, and many rustic sports, appears to be yet undetermined. Indeed, it has been maintained that its origin is to be sought in far more remote periods. Maurice says that it is identical with the Phallic festivals of India and Egypt, which in those countries took place upon the sun entering Taurus, to celebrate Nature's renewed fertility.
At any rate, whatever may have been the heathenish origin of these May-games, the May-pole had become so firmly rooted in the soil of Merry England long before the time of Charles I., and had been, as was believed, so thoroughly divested of all its ancient idolatrous associations as to be thought worthy even of royal and episcopal commendation; its harmless observances being enjoined by the highest ecclesiastical authorities: —
"Our express pleasure therefore is," says King Charles I. (in the "Book of Sports "), " that after the end of Divine Service, our good people be not disturbed, letted, or discouraged from any lawful recreation, such as dancing, either men or women, archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation; nor from having of May Games, Whitsun Ales, and Morris-dances, and the setting up of May-poles, and other sports therewith used, so as the same be had in due and convenient time, without impediment or neglect of Divine Service."
But whatever may have been the relish with which high church divines read forth to their people from the sacred desk these royal injunctions; and however much their observance may have been associated with the sentiments of religion and loyalty; still their celeT bration, it is well known, gave great offense to that part of their congregations who felt scruples of " conscience" in regard to the use of these games. For in the eyes of our Puritan forefathers, they were simply " heathen abominations." Thus, in response to the King's declaration in the "Book of Sports," we find the defiant puritanical Parliament of 1643 enacting as follows : —
"And because the profanation of the Lord's Day hath been heretofore greatly occasioned by May-poles (a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness), the Lords and Commons do further order and ordain, that all and singular Maypoles, that are or shall be erected, shall be taken down and removed by the constables, borsholders, tythingmen, petty-constables, and church-wardens of the parishes where the same be; and that no May-pole shall be hereafter set up, erected or suffered to be, within this Kingdom of England, or Dominion of Wales."
In 1661, Thomas Hall, the celebrated non-conformist divine, in his "Funebria Florae, or Downfall of May-Games," in a solemn arraignment, brings in twenty arguments in the form of theses against poor Flora, with a brief dissertation upon each, and ends by trying her before a packed jury of his own Puritans, who, as a matter of course, bring her in guilty, when the parson, as judge, thus pronounces sentence : —
"Flora, thou hast been indicted, by the name of Flora, for bringing in abundance of misrule and disorder into Church and State; thou hast been found guilty, and art condemned both by God and man, by Scriptures, fathers, councils, by learned and pious divines, both old and new, and therefore I adjudge thee to perpetual banishment."
Old Stubbs, also, as usual, is extremely eloquent on this subject: —
"Against Maie Whitsondaie, or some other tyme of the yeare, every parishe, toune or village, assemble themselves together, bothe men women and children, olde and young, even all indifferently; and either goyng alltogether, or devyding themselves into companies, they goe some to the woods and groves, &c, some to the hilles and mountaines, some to one place, some to an other, where they spende all the night in pleasant pastymes; and in the mornyng they returne, bringing with them birch boughs and braunches of trees to deck their assemblies withall. And no marvaile; for there is a great lord present amongst them as superintendent and lorde over their pastymes and sportes; namely, Sathan, prince of Hell. But their chiefest jewell they bring from thence is their Maie-pole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus: they have twentie or fourtie yoke of oxen, every oxe havying a swete nosegaie of flowers tyed on the tippe of his hornes, and these oxen drawe home this Maie-pole — this stinking idoll rather — which is covered all over with flowers and herbes bounde rounde aboute with stringes, from the top to the bottome, and sometyme painted with variable colours (black and yellow), with twoo or three hundred men women and children followyng it with great devotion. And this beyng reared up, with handkerchiefes and flagges streamyng on the toppe, they strawe the grounde aboute, beside green boughes aboute it; set up summer haulles, bowers and arbours hard by it, and then fall they to banquet and feast, to leap and daunce about it, as the heathen people did at the dedication of their idolles, whereof this is a proper patterne, or rayther the thynge itself."
It is curious enough to contrast the effusions of this rabid fanatic, with the pleasing picture of the same custom left to us by Stowe : —
"In the moneth of May," says the cheerful old man, "namely on May-day in the morning, every man, except impediment, would walk into the sweete meadows and green woods, there to rejoyce their spirites, with the beauty and savour of sweete flowers, and with the harmony of birds praysing God in their kind; and for example hereof Edward Hall hath noted that K. Henry the Eight, as in the 3 of his reigne and divers other years, so namely on the seventh of his reigne on May-day in the morning with Queene Katheren his wife, accompanied with many Lords and Ladies, rode a Maying from Greenwitch to the high ground of Shooter's hill, where as they passed by the way, they espied a company of tall yeomen clothed all in Greene, with greene whoodes and with bowes and arrowes to the number of 200. One being their chieftaine was called Robin Hoode, who required the king and his companie to stay and see his men shoote, whereunto the king graunting, Robin Hoode whistled, and all the 200 archers shot off, losing all at once; and when he whistled againe, they likewise shot againe; their arrowes whistled by craft of the head, so that the noyse was strange and loude, which greatly delighted the king, queene and their companie. Moreover, this Robin Hoode desired the king and queene, with their retinue, to enter the greene wood, where, in harbours made of boughes and decked with flowers, they were set and served plentifully with venison and wine by Robin Hoode and his meynie, to their great contentment, and had other pageants and pastimes."
"I find also, that in the moneth of May, the citizens of London, of all estates, lightly in every parish, or sometimes two or three parishes joyning togither, had their several Mayings, and did fetch in May-poles, with divers warlike shewes, with good archers, moricedauncers, and other devices, for pastime all the day long, and towards the evening they had stage playes and bonefires in the streetes. Of these Mayings we reade, in the raigne of Henry the Sixt, that the aldermen and shiriffes of London being, on May-day, at the Bishop of London's wood, in the parish of Stebunheath, and having there a worshipfull dinner for themselves and other commers, Lydgate the poet, that was a monk of Bury, sent to them by a pursivant a joyful 1 commendation of that season, containing sixteen staves in meter royall, beginning thus: —
"Mightie Flora, goddesse of fresh bowers,
Which clothed hath the soyle in lustie greene,
Made buds spring, with her sweete showers,
By influence of the sunny-shien."
The custom of gathering May-dew survived until the end of the seventeenth century: — "young ladies and even grave matrons, repaired to the fields to gather May-dew with which to beautify their complexions; milkmaids also danced in the streets with their pails wreathed with garlands, and a fiddler going before them."
A hundred years ago " the milk-maids' garland was a pyramidal frame, covered with damask, glittering on each side with [borrowed] polished silver plate, and adorned with knots of gay-coloured ribbons and posies of fresh flowers, surmounted with a silver urn or tankard. It .was placed on a wooden horse, and carried by two men, preceded by a pipe and tabor or a fiddle."
A good idea of the hilarity of the occasion may be gathered from a curious old ballad in the " Westminster Drollery," called the " Rural Dance about the Maypole :" —
"Come lasses and lads, take leave of yoyr dads,
And away to the May-pole hie;
For every he has got him a she,
And the minstrel is standing by;
For Willy has gotten his Jill, and Johnny has got his Joan,
To jig it, jig it, jig it, jig it up and down.
"'Strike up,' says Wat. 'Agreed,' says Kate,
And, 'I prithee, fiddler, play ;'
'Content,' says Hodge, and so says Madge,
'For this is a holiday!'
Then every man did put his hat off to his lass,
And every girl did curchy, curchy, curchy on the grass.
"' Begin,' says Hall. 'Aye, aye,' says Mall,
'We'll lead up Packington's Pound:
'No, no,' says Noll; and so says Doll,
'We'll first have Sellenger's Round.'
Then every man began to foot it round about,
And every girl did jet it, jet it, jet it in and out.
"' You're out,' says Dick. 'Tis a lie,' says Nick j
'The fiddler played it false ;'
''Tis true,' says Hugh; and so says Sue,
And so says nimble Alse.
The fiddler then began to play the tune again,
And every girl did trip it, trip it, trip it to the men."
The morris-dance, the peculiar sport and pastime of May-day and Whitsuntide, is generally supposed to be of Moorish origin, derived from Spain. Hence its name. In confirmation of this opinion, we are told by Junius, that at one time the dancers blackened their faces to resemble Moors. Strutt, indeed, thinks differently; but his arguments, which are not very strong in themselves, seem to be altogether set aside by the fact of the word morris being applied in the same way by other nations to express a dance, that both English and foreign glossaries alike ascribe to the Moors. That the dance is not exactly the same as the fandango, the real Morisco, can by no means be considered as invalidating this argument, for similar deviations from originals have taken place in other borrowed amusements.
From whatever source the morris-dance may have been derived, it would seem to have been first brought into England about the time of Edward III., when John of Gaunt returned from Spain. It was certainly popular in France, as early as the fifteenth century, under the name of Morisque, which is an intermediate step between the Spanish Morisco and the English morris. There does not appear to be any mention of this dance by English writers or records before the sixteenth century; but then, and especially in the writers of the Shakespearean age, the allusions to it become very numerous. It was probably introduced into England by dancers both from Spain and France; for in the earlier allusions to it in English, it is sometimes called the Morisco and sometimes the Morisce or Morisk.
Tabourot, the oldest and most curious writer on the art of dancing, says, that in his youthful days, about the beginning of the sixteenth century, it was the custom in good society for a boy to come into the hall when supper was finished, with his face blackened, his forehead bound with white or yellow taffeta, and bells tied to his legs. He then proceeded to dance the Morisco, the whole length of the hall backward and forward, to the great amusement of the company. This was the ancient and uncorrupted morris-dance.
In England, however, it seems to have been very soon united with an older pageant-dance, performed at certain periods in honor of Robin Hood and his outlaws; and thus a morris-dance consisted of a certain number of characters limited at one time to five, but varying considerably at different periods.
There was preserved in an ancient mansion at Betley, in Staffordshire, some years ago, and it may exist there still, a painted glass window of apparently the reign of Henry VIII., representing in its different compartments the several characters of the morrisdance. George Tollett, Esq., who possessed the mansion at the beginning of this century, and who was a friend of the Shakespearean critic Malone, gave a lengthy dissertation on this window, with an engraving. Maid Marian, the Queen of May, is there dressed in a rich costume of the period referred to, with a golden crown on her head, and a red pink in her left hand, supposed to be intended as the emblem of Summer : —
"This Queen of May is supposed to represent the goddess Flora of the Roman festival; Robin Hood appears as the lover of the Maid Marian. An ecclesiastic also appears among the characters in the window, in the full clerical tonsure, with a chaplet of red and white beads in his right hand; his corded girdle and his russet habit denoting him to be of the Franciscan order, or one of the Gray Friars; his stockings are red; his red girdle is ornamented with a golden twist and with a golden tassel."
This is supposed to be Friar Tuck, a well-known character of the Robin Hood ballads. The Fool, with his cock's comb and bauble, also takes his place in the figures in the window; neither is the taborer wanting with his tabor and pipe, "nor has the hobbyhorse been forgot."1
1 At Banbury there is annually exhibited a pageant, in which a fine lady on a white horse, preceded by Robin Hood and Little John, Friar Tuck, a company of archers, bands of music, flags and banners, passes through the principal street to
We may infer from the extraordinary longevity of those skilled in the morris-dances, that the exercise was conducive to the health of the body at least, if not equally so to that of the soul; the believers in "muscular Christianity," however, may reasonably doubt whether what was so good for the body, could be after all, as the Puritans maintained it was, so very bad for the soul.
Sir William Temple thus mentions a morris-dance which took place in Herefordshire, in King James' time : —
"There went about the country a sett of Morrice dancers, composed of ten men, who danced a Maid Marrian, and a tabor and pipe ; these ten, one with one another made up twelve hundred years. Tis not so much that so many in one country should live to that age, as that they should be in vigor and humour to travel and dance."
About a century ago, also, a famous May-game or morris-dance, was performed by eight men in the same county, whose ages computed together amounted to eight hundred years.
Brady, in his •' Clavis Calendaria," published in London in 1812, says of "the May Pole, that it is still retained in most of our villages," and that, "the May
the Cross, where the lady (Maid Marian) scatters Banbury cakes among the people. This Cross, so celebrated in the nursery hymn, "Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross," pulled down by the Puritans in the reign of Elizabeth, has recently been rebuilt by the Banburians, to commemorate the marriage of the Princess Royal with the Crown Prince of Prussia.
games were also once so general in England, that even the priests,1 joining with the people, used to go in procession to some adjoining wood on the May morning, and return in triumph with the much prized pole, adorned with boughs, flowers, and other tokens of the Spring season."
"Happy the age, and harmless were the days
(For then true love and amity was found),
When every village did a May-pole raise,
And Whitsun Ales and May-games did abound;
And all the lusty yonkers, in a rout,
With merry lasses daunc'd the rod about;
Then Friendship to their banquets bid the guests,
And poore men far'd the better for their feasts.
"The lords of castles, mannors, towns, and towers,
Rejoic'd when they beheld the farmers flourish,
And would come downe unto the summer bowers,
To see the country gallants daunce the morrice."
The May-pole, once fixed, remained until the end of the year, and was resorted to at all other seasons of festivity, as well as during May. Hence the general term of " May-games," to which reference is made in the " Book of Sports " and other contemporaneous writings. Some of these poles, made of wood of a more durable nature, remained for years, being merely
1 Dr. Parr was a great patron of May-day festivities. Opposite his parsonage house at Watton near Warwick, stood the parish May-pole, which was annually dressed with garlands, and the doctor himself danced with his parishioners around the shaft.
freshly ornamented instead of being removed, as was the common practice. The last of such permanent May-poles in London was taken down in 1717, and conveyed to Wanstead, in Essex, where it was fixed in the park for the support of an immensely large telescope. Its original height was upward of one hundred feet above the surface of the ground, and its station on the east side of Somerset House has been thus commemorated by Pope: —
"Amidst the area wide they took their stand,
Where the tall May-pole once o'erlook'd the Strand."
The May-pole in later times in this country, appears to have been transformed into the Liberty-pole.
The third canto of Trumbull's "McFingal" is called the "Liberty-Pole." When the hero caught sight of it and the crowd around it, he exclaimed : —
"What mad-brained rebel gave commission
To raise this May-pole of sedition."
We may infer from the above that Trumbull thought that the May-pole, around which in England young people had joyful gatherings, suggested our Liberty-pole first raised in New York, in 1766, and which has been erected in all parts of this country as a rallying point for public meetings and Fourth of July celebrations.
Another May-day custom worthy of notice, is still kept up at Oxford. On the top of the magnificent tower of Magdalen College, an anthem is sung at sunrise every May morning. The choristers and singing men of the College Chapel in their surplices, assemble there a little before five o'clock, and as soon as the clock has struck, commence singing their matins.
The college, it appears, holds certain land on condition of the annual performance of this ceremony, which, by the way, is said to be a substitute for a mass or requiem, which before the Reformation used to be annually sung in the same exalted position, for the rest ► of the soul of Henry VII. the founder of the college.
The beautiful bridge, and all around the college, is covered with spectators, the inhabitants of the city as well as the neighboring villages collecting together, some on foot, and some in carriages, to hear the choir, and welcome in the happy day. The effect of the singing is said to be sweet and solemn, and almost supernatural, and during its celebration the most profound stillness reigns over the assembled numbers; all seem impressed with the angelic softness of the floating sounds, as they are gently wafted down by each breath of air. All is hushed and calm and quiet — even breathing is almost forgotten, and all seem lost even to themselves, until with the first peal of the bells (of which there are ten) the spell is broken, and noise and confusion usurp the place of silence and quiet.