May Day Traditions in the English Regency

Johann Peter Neef's "May Day" painting, depicting three young ladies and two gentlemen in Regency garb dancing around a maypole holding streamers attached to to the top of a pole decorated with flowers.
May Day by Johann Peter Neef (1753-1796)
“On Monday last at Cheriton, near Alresford, the usual pastime of Maying commenced, where a Maypole was erected in commemoration of the day, and in the afternoon the sons and daughters of May, dressed in a very appropriate manner for the occasion, accompanied by a band of music, proceeded to a commodious bower, composed of green boughs, garlands of flowers, &c. erected for dancing; it was attended by upwards of 50 couple of the most respectable people in the neighbourhood, till the evening.” – Hampshire Chronicle, 8 May 1815

It’s May, when the weather warms, flowers bloom, and—according to Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur—“…it giveth unto all lovers courage, that lusty month of May.” (Which is where the lyrics of the song in the musical Camelot gets the phrase.)
Celebrations of May date far back in time. The ancient Celts marked May 1 as Beltane and the start of the near year, and bonfires were lit—a celebration still held in parts of Ireland and Wales. Ancient Greek celebrated with a May-wreath, while the Roman festival of Floralia (for the goddess Flora), was held in late April and early May. May brings to England the time of year when fresh fruits and vegetables reappear in abundance and, with green being symbolic of life and renewal, it was a time to eat just about any herbs or salads made of greens.

The traditions in England often involved dances around a maypole—which dates back in records to the 14th century—that would be decorated with flowers. (In 1644, the Puritan Parliament of England banned maypoles as being far too pagan, but Charles II restored the tradition—not that it had really fallen from favor in the rural countryside). A May King and Queen might be crowned, and girls would dress in white and put flowers in their hair. Morris dancers, decked out in green and white with flowers on their hats and bells tied to their legs, would also be out to celebrate, and milk maids would dance, sometimes with decorated milk or ale pails on their heads. Pantomimes might be performed, with stories of Robin Hood and Maid Marion being very popular characters.

Around 1770 and through to the early 1900s, Jack in Green or Jack o’ the Green—a man dressed in a wicker frame decorated to look like a tree—became a popular character, and the milk maids—and sometimes the chimney sweeps of London—would dance around him. The tradition has deeper roots in the mythic Green Man who appears carved into many early churches with his face made of leaves and branches.

May Day was also when fairs might be held in many parts of England. London’s now posh area of Mayfair got it’s name from an annual fair that took place in what had once been a muddy, rural monastery (near the River Tyburn swamps). The May Fair was held at Great Brookfield (now part of Curzon Street and Shepherd Market) from May 1 to May 14, with the last fair held in 1764. Fairs offered plays, jugglers, fencers, bare-knuckle fighting, women’s foot races, eating contests, and rather a lot of bad, drunken behavior. The Grosvenor family acquired the land through marriage and by 1720, the wealthy moved from Soho and Whitehall into these fashionable “West End” addresses.

While London’s May Fair became a memory, fairs across England persisted as a place for shops to set up to sell cattle, horses and other livestock, for business to be conducted, crafts sold, and entertainment offered, and May offered good weather and a reason to get together.

In medieval times on through to the Industrial Revolution that changed the agricultural world, May Day was a day of rest and celebrations. Hawthorn branches were one of the favorites for its pretty white flowers and associations to bringing in luck, but sycamore, birch, and rowan trees were also used, with flowers plucked from anything that bloomed. Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language by John Jamieson in 1808 describes some of the May Day customs that persisted into the Regency era in Scotland, which he noted were beginning to die out. (The Victorians came along and revived the traditions, however.)

Other customs that carried into the late 1700s and early 1800s included collecting May dew from grass and hedges to bring luck, beauty, clear away any spots, and even heal sickness. In parts of England, May Day would be the day to choose a bride, or hire a new servant (it was one of the main Quarter Days), or even take a community walk over the common paths that, by ancient rules, had to be kept open so long as one person walked them once a year. May baskets of flowers also became a popular gift to leave on the doorsteps of friends, relatives and loved ones.

Well dressing was another ancient custom—mostly in Derbyshire and Staffordshire—of tying floral garlands or colorful ribbons to wells and springs. In north England, the day for pranks fell on May 1 when May Goslings—typically young men—might swap shop signs or play jokes on others, but the jests had to stop by midday. In Oxford, on May Day, a tradition dating back to Tudor days is still held, when the Hymnus Eucharisticus is sung from the top of Magdalen Tower, along with the madrigal, Now is the Month of Maying. Crowds would gather—and still do—on Madalen Bridge and in boats on the River Cherwell—a tributary of the Thames—to listen to the choir and hear prayers led by the Dean of Divinity. The village of Randwick, Gloucestershire, from the 14th century until the late 19th century—when it was banned for too much drunken trouble (and later revived in 1970)—held the Randwick Wap, when three wheels of cheese were decorated, carried to the village churchyard, rolled three times around the church, and then taken to the village green to be shared.

(On a side note, the phrase “mayday” meaning distress has nothing to do with May Day. It originated in the 1920s when a English radioman though it sounded a lot like the French word m’aider, meaning “help me.”)

While May Day traditions carried on into the English Regency period, they started to fall to the side as the Industrial Revolution and the Enclosure Acts pushed people from the countryside to the cities. However, Victorians—with their fondness for the past—revived most of the traditions, as did many modern villages, bringing back the joy of spring flowers, dancing and the delight of the return of warm weather—an idea time to bring a little romance into your life.

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Article by Shannon Donnelly for The Quizzing Glass blog and The Regency Reader.

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  1. Thanks for this well-researched article. I had the chance to dance around a Maypole in Tonbridge, Kent, with my schoolmates. I think Second Form (13 years). We had to practice it as a team because when dancing around, the different colored ribbons were woven into a pattern starting at the top of the pole and gradually moving down. There was also a group of local Morris Dancers and, of course, we learnt “Now Is the Month of Maying.” Thanks for the memories.

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