Unite and unite, and let us all unite
For summer is a-comin’ today
And whither we are going we all will unite
In the merry morning of May
This opening verse is from one of the most enduring songs from the British tradition, The Padstow May Song, long connected with Morris Men and Mummers Players, heralds the approaching English Summer and the commencement of the bountiful month of May. The song’s origins have been lost in time but we know it is ancient and harks back to the time of fertility worship and praise for the season gone and seasons to come.
May has long been the most important month in the western calendar and folklore tracks its march through time. It has been adopted by chimney sweeps, churches, labour movements, horse race promoters, and, not surprisingly, the occult.
Although May Day is now almost universally recognised as the first day of the month of May, before 1752, when the calendar was changed, it was 11 days earlier.
Australia, being on the other side of the globe, accepts many of the threads of tradition despite the fact May down under announces the coming of Winter, not Summer.
AUSTRALIA inherited many British traditions – some have disappeared from our rather uncaring modern world – but some certainly survive, even if in a somewhat precarious and peculiar way.
May Day was an important day in the Middle Ages and was a favourite holiday of many English villages. It was common to cut down young trees and stick them in the ground in the village to mark the arrival of summer. One assumes this is the origin of the maypole. People danced around them in celebration of the end of winter and the start of the fine weather that would signify planting to begin.
In the very early morning, young girls went into the fields and washed their faces with dew. They believed this made them very beautiful for the following year. An early spa and beauty regime worth bottling!
May Day was also the day when the young men of each village tried to win prizes with their bows and arrows. Many places conducted a May Fair.
For a time May Eve was known as Mischief Night in some parts of Britain and practical jokes were played.
In the North of England, the first of May was a kind of late ‘April Fooling’ when all sorts of pranks would take place and the cry of: ‘May Gosling’ was shouted out when you managed to trick someone. The response would be:
‘May Goslings past and gone. You’re the fool for making me one!’
Australian schoolchildren spent days making the fancy ribbons and bouquets for May Day, especially in the first half of the 20th century.
Maypoles were once common all over England and were kept from one year to the next. These were usually tree trunks or long branches and did not always resemble the maypoles of modern times. The tallest maypole is said to have been erected in London on the Strand in 1661; it stood over 143 feet high. It was felled in 1717, when it was used by the great inventor, Isaac Newton, to support ‘Huygen’s new reflecting telescope’
Originally the Maypole represented a phallic symbol or a Pagan symbol of Fertility celebrating sexuality and life to the ‘Horned God’, and was decorated with flowers and wild garlands. The Horned God image is similar to the Greek/Roman Pan; he is a symbol of fertility and the life for the forest, including the hunting of game. Later moving away from Pagan worship it was revived by and became Roman in origin. They used it in some ceremonies connected with the worship of Maia, the mother of Mercury, and the presiding goddess of that month.
For many centuries it was the chief dance of England. The ancient Britons erected Maypoles even before Claudius and the Roman invasion (AD 43). The May Dance was popular in the rural districts of England where it achieved its finishing non- pagan touches, while in many places throughout the world it was still widely danced. It fell out of favour with the Church around the late 1800s.
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