This Thursday morning, the 1st May, I celebrated May Day. It’s a tradition that I have taken part in for the past three years, as there’s always lots going on in Oxford to mark the date, much of which is specifically connected to my college, Magdalen. I always find it an interesting holiday as it blends so many different cultures – originally a pagan festival marking the start of summer (it’s approximately halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice), it was adapted when Christianity was adopted in this country, and now also has strong associations with International Workers’ Day…
May Day – International Workers’ Day
When I was growing up in London, I only knew of it as the day when there were big riots in the capital, which could often get violent. I specifically remember a few May Days around 2001 when the police had to get on their riot gear – as a 9 year old who was unconnected to what was going on I remember it being quite exciting! – but I only ever saw it on TV, and of course the bank holiday meant that we got the day off school. I had no idea that the day had a much longer history…
May Day – Beltane
Many hundreds of years before a bank holiday was established in the UK for International Workers’ Day, the 1st May was the date that the celtic festival of Beltane was celebrated, a festival of fertility, life and summer. It’s Beltane where the May Pole originated – though I have to admit I’ve never actually seen one – but it used to be a phallic fertility symbol. It marked the divide between the cold winter season and the warmer summer – though every May Day I can remember, it has been grey and drizzly! The bit of Beltane that persists strongly in Oxford is Morris Dancing. For the past week the city has been full of these coloured troupes with bells on their ankles. This year some of them have been raising controversy through their use of blackface – with some arguing that any blacking up is inherently offensive in this day and age, while others point to a tradition of face painting as a form of disguise so that Morris dancers wouldn’t be recognised by those trying to stamp out the pagan tradition. On that account, I think it is pretty amazing that there ARE still some pagan traditions that have managed to survive in England for so long – it’s nice to be reminded every now and then of just how long and rich our history is.
May Day – Magdalen
The highlight of May Day celebrations in Oxford takes place very early in the morning on the 1st May: at 6am the choir from Magdalen sings what is known as the Hymnus Eucharisticus followed by some traditional madrigals from the top of Magdalen tower. Crowds come from all over the country to see this strange rite – it only lasts about ten minutes! It’s a tradition that has been going for almost 500 years…
There’s also some interesting woodcuts of the Hymnus Eucharisticus from much earlier times here, and even better, a 1931 recording of the ceremony here. I’m not sure entirely why the morning is so connected to Magdalen, but it might be something to do with the fact that when May Day was appropriated by the Christians, it was connected to the Virgin Mary (hence why you find May Queens in some celebrations) – and Magdalen is properly the college of Mary Magdalen. (That’s a complete guess though!)
However, some of the traditions associated with May Morning at Magdalen are of a rather more recent nature. Nowadays students celebrate by going to special May Eve club-nights the night before, and staying up all night to hear the singing in the morning, often with a stop at a greasy spoon between the two – lots of cafes in the centre open up at 3am to serve bacon sandwiches and the like. This used to be accompanied by a morning jump into the river off Magdalen bridge until a couple of years ago when the police launched a campaign to discourage the activity as a number of students each year got pretty badly injured – the river is not deep and there are lots of spiky things at the bottom. So now barriers are set up along each side of Magdalen bridge – though quite why you’d want to jump into the river at dawn when it’s bloody freezing cold, I’m not quite sure. The downside to this way of celebrating, as I discovered this year, is that you might be so tired by the time it gets to 6am that the last thing you want to do is to go and listen to some choral music. However, I did manage to drag myself up Founder’s Tower in Magdalen to hear the songs – a smaller tower next to the tower where the choir sings from, where you can get a much better view – but next year I may just get up early and leave the all-night partying to the younger students.
May Day – Around the World
Follow this Big Picture link to see some fascinating photos of May Day events from this year round the world. I particularly found interesting the riots in Taksim square as I was there only three weeks ago (for an account of Taksim’s May Day see here) and the photo of two demonstrators taking a selfie in the middle of a riot!
Did you celebrate May Day this year?