The Significance of May Day in Britain

It's the Time of Year When the British Let Their Hair Down

Maypole Dancing at Chatsworth House
••• Maypole dancing at Chatsworth House. Getty Images/Barry Lewis

May is probably the sexiest month of the year in Britain. When Guinevere sings about May in Lerner and Loewe's Camelot, she could be singing the praises of ancient pagan festivals and traditions, celebrating the mating game, that continues to this day.

"Tra la! It's May!
The lusty month of May!
That lovely month when everyone goes
Blissfully astray."

Before May Day became entangled with international left wing politics, it was associated, throughout England, with all things fertile, green and juicy.

While you can usually expect some large protest marches supporting the current crop of urgent causes in the larger cities, in the smaller villages of England, especially those of the south and southwest, it's a time for letting one's hair down and celebrating the most primal forces of life.

Dancing on The Rude Man

The month kicks off at dawn on May 1 in Cerne Abbas, a small village north of Dorchester in Dorset, when the Wessex Morris Men, along with various new agers, neo-pagans and other mystical types dance on the Cerne Abbas Giant, the UK's most suggestive landmark. The giant is sometimes also called The Rude Man. The procession of celebrants then dances down to the village where, at 7 a.m., there is more dancing in the square followed breakfast at the pub. To join in, find the tiny village, just off the A352 and simply follow the crowds.

Celebrating May Day in Oxford

May Day revels among the huge student population of Oxford go back hundreds of years.

It all begins the night before with parties, some private, some in the pubs and clubs. The biggest one is usually an open air party in Port Meadow, an area that has been park and common land since the Middle Ages. Dancing, for those with the stamina for it, goes on all night.

Just before dawn on May 1, Morris Dancers, with their bells and ribbons, dance in the day and the crowds move on to the area around Magdalen (pronounced maudlin) Bridge.

At one time, there was a tradition of revelers jumping from the bridge into the Cherwell River. But the river is only six feet deep and, after several injuries, the bridge was closed.

Get to the bridge early for a good spot: At dawn, the choristers of Magdalen College, a traditional English boys choir, sing a Medieval Eucharist Hymn from the college tower and the crowd is instantly hushed. No one knows exactly when this tradition began, but there are records of it going back to the 1600s.

Finally, the now subdued (and likely exhausted) crowds disperse some to breakfast picnics and ball games, others to the many Oxford pubs that have special licenses to open early on the day.

Traditional May Day Celebrations

Villages all over England have their own local May Day traditions, often built around maypole dances, morris men, the crowning of a Queen of the May and the revels of the Green Man or Jack-in-the-Green, an ancient woodland spirit.

  • The Minehead Hobby Horse a dummy horse and fertility symbol rampages through the streets of the Somerset village of Minehead for three days (May 1 to 3) accompanied by noisy musicians and a rowdy crowd that is rowdiest on the last night. The Hobby Horse accosts passersby for donations and embarrasses those who don't pay up.
  • The Padstow Obby Oss comes out of its stables, near Padstow Harbor on the morning of May 1 accompanied by singers, dancers, and musicians. The parade goes door to door, up and down this north Cornwall town's narrow lanes and attracts thousands of spectators. Traditional forest greenery -- hazel catkins, bluebells, cowslips, forget-me-nots and sycamore twigs decorate the village.
  • The Helson Flora Dance takes place on May 8 and is thought to be one of the UK's oldest May Day traditions. From 7 a.m. until after 5 p.m., the people of this Cornish village dance in the streets. There are several different dances, including a children's dance that involves as many as 1,000 children, dressed in white and garlanded with lily of the valley. In Victorian times, this The Helson Flora Dances were banned.