May Day in England

May 1st is known as May Day or Garland Day in England. This celebration has its roots far back with the ancient Celts when May Day marked the start of summer. Sheep were taken back up to the hills after over wintering in the valleys. In England many celebrations still occur on village greens and in schools to make this day.

One of the more unusual is the Padstow Hobby Horse (or Old Hoss). This celebration runs from Midnight to midnight with singing and dancing around the town, culminating around the Maypole.

1:12th scale Hobby Horse available as a kit or miniature knitting pattern from Buttercup Miniatures

pattern for a miniature hobby horse
© F H Powell 2010

In ancient times houses were decorated with Mayflowers (Hawthorn blossom) and greenery. People would rise well before sunrise to gather this decorative vegetation in the belief good luck would ensue for the rest of the year.

Young girls would wash their faces in the early morning dew (in the hope they would remain beautiful for the whole year) and make May Garlands (made from two hoops one positioned inside the other at right angles and decorated with greenery and flowers). A young girl might also be chosen to be the May Queen or Queen of the May (originally the May Queen was a representation of an ancient Roman goddess, but was renamed May Queen by Victorians). She would be enthroned on a flower decked chair and watch over dancing, archery contests and other games.

One of the most popular forms of dancing was to dance around the Maypole (actually an ancient fertility symbol ) Some villages till have the Maypole on the village green-it may be raised for the day or left standing all year round. However in all cases it is decorated with brightly coloured rings or spirals made of greenery and flowers. The beribboned Maypoles we see more often today originated in Southern Europe and became common in the 19th century when Victorians were recreating ‘old customs’. Many villages still have Maypole dancing where children dance around the Maypole, weaving the ribbons into an intricate pattern around the pole as they dance.

Ribbons, flowers, dancing and hobby horses are common in most May Day traditions and celebrations