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May Day or thereabouts

For our purposes May Day includes not only rituals on 1 May but also celebrations on the first Saturday in May and on May Bank Holiday as well as Flora Day in Helston a week later, and Garland Day in Abbotsbury on ‘Old’ May Day plus Marhamchurch Revel which actually happens in August but would obviously be more at home in May. The hobby horses of Padstow and Minehead also appear on May Day but they get a section on their own because they are so interesting. Other big days are Oak Apple Day on 29 May, and Spring Bank Holiday, the last Monday in the month. Finally we have a small group which happen to fall in May but are not essentially ‘May’ customs.

Ansty in Wiltshire, once a contender for the ‘Tallest Maypole in Britain’ crown until a gale blew it down in 1993, still has a celebration around their more modest pole early on May Morning and crown their May Queen. May Queens are standard at May Day celebrations (and, under other names, at Wakes Weeks and Fairs and so on) and our young lady at Ansty can be our cheerful example. May Day is celebrated in many towns and villages, represented here by Ickwell, Knutsford and Lustleigh. Ickwell is noted for its advanced maypole dancing, Knutsford for its unique ‘sanding’ and for NW Morris dancers, and Lustleigh for its charm. Oxford May Morning begins with carol singing on the top of Magdalen Tower and continues good humouredly with morris dancing, the attendance of Jack-in-the-Green, impromptu entertainments, and Hooray Henrys jumping off Magdalen Bridge. A few miles north in Charlton-in-Otmoor the village primary school children carry decorated crosses to the church to place them under the newly refurbished ‘Garland Queen’ which stands permanently on the fine rood screen.

Helston Flora Day is on 8 May, the feast of St Michael, patron saint of the parish (unless it is a Sunday or a Monday which is Market Day). There are actually four Furry Dances on the day; the Early Morning Dance (originally for servants but now for the younger workers of the town) starts at 7am, the Children go off at 10, all 1000 of them, and the Principal Dance, with the men in morning dress and top hats and the women in long dresses, begins at midday. It is a simple but very impressive processional dance, each one with its own route through houses and gardens as well as streets. At 5 o’clock the Evening Dance is led by the early dancers (by now finished work) but anyone can join in. Abbotsbury celebrates on ‘old’ May Day as the children carry elaborate garlands around the village.