dancing around the Maypole, the pageantry, the floral wish...
strange are the celebrations of May Day. But how did they come to stay with us?
And what do they mean?
May Day is a time to celebrate the onset of May, the month that sees the Earth reaching itself ready to burgeon to its maximum capacity. Since the ancient days in England there prevailed a custom of "bringing in the May" on MayDay. This was why people would go to the woods in the early dawn. There they picked flowers and lopped off tender branches to bring them in and decorate the houses.
It has always been strongly associated with flowers. Partly may be because of their availability in abundance. But that is not all. There are other reasons as well. For instance, the May Garland and beggar girls.
Making garland is one of those ancient May Day customs that has survived still today. May garlands, is meant for the coming of summer. May garlands were also used while begging by the kids from door to door. At other times of the year begging would have been an offence. But if it was done at May time with a garland. This is why groups of small girls, crowned with leaves and flowers, went from door to door singing and begging.
On the first day of May, English villagers woke up at daybreak to roam the countryside gathering blossoming flowers and branches. A towering maypole was set up on the village green. This pole, usually made of the trunk of a tall birch tree, was decorated with bright field flowers. The villagers then danced and sang around the maypole, accompanied by a piper.
Also part of the celebration was the crowning of a May Queen. When the sun rose, the maypole was decked with leaves, flowers and ribbons while dancing and singing went on around it. The Queen was chosen from the pretty girls of the village to reign over the May Day festivities. Crowned on a flower-covered throne, she was drawn in a decorated cart by young men or her maids of honor to the village green. She would be crowned there right on the green spot. She was set in an arbor of flowers and often the dancing was performed around her, rather than around the Maypole.
Another colorful feature of the this celebration was the energetic Morris dance. Groups of men dance together in costumes of traditional characters, often animal-men, in ceremonial folk dances. The central figure of the dances, usually an animal-man, varies considerably in importance. The name Morris is also associated with the horn dance held each year at Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire, England. This dance-procession includes six animal-men bearing deer antlers, three white and three black sets; a man-woman, or Maid Marian, and a fool.
These dances are still performed in England. And also survive in various parts of Europe, Asia, and, America. One such comparable surviving animal custom is the May Day procession of a man-horse, notably at Padstow, Cornwall. There, the central figure, "Oss Oss," is a witch doctor disguised as a horse and wearing a medicine mask. The dancers are attendants who sing the May Day song, beat drums, and in turn act the horse or dance in attendance. The name Morris is also associated with groups of mummers who act, rather than dance, the death-and-survival rite at the turn of the year.
Throughout history, the Morris seems to have been common. It was imported from village festivities into popular entertainment after the invention of the court masque by Henry VIII. The word Morris apparently derived from "morisco," meaning "Moorish." Cecil Sharp, whose collecting of Morris dances preserved many from extinction, suggested that it might have arisen from the dancers' blacking their faces as part of the necessary ritual disguise. The name Morris dance is sometimes loosely applied to sword dances in which a group of men weave their swords into intricate patterns.
Washing the face with May dew was yet another custom. There was a belief among the women in Great Britain and other parts of Europe those days that May Day dew has the power to restore beauty. This why in the Ozark Mountains, a cradle of American folklore, girls used to nurture a belief that having their faces washed with the early dawn dews on the May Day would help to be married to the man of her choice.