Up until Oliver Cromwell’s time, every May a lofty maypole used to be put up near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Twelve metres high, it was stored in a pub for the remainder of the year. Today, head to Nun Monkton in North Yorkshire and you’ll see their permanent 27-metre-tall maypole. Maypoles have been with us for centuries and are arguably one of the most well-known of all folk traditions.
But what about the more obscure and curious British customs observed around May Day and the echoes from our dim past which have (largely) died out? There were certainly a lot of them.
Here in this article, we will take a look at seven of the most intriguing May Day traditions.
No Spring Chicken - May Birching
For centuries, our rural ancestors in northern and central England would wake up on May Day morning and look to see what sort of twig or flower had been left by or on their door. This custom was known as May Birching.
But what the house was festooned with was loaded with meaning and it wasn’t always nice. For example, a thorn on your doormat was a message that you were not very popular (unless it was a hawthorn, which confusingly meant the opposite).
Aside from symbolism, your May morning message from the community could be in the form of a rhyme. If a pear was left, this was a compliment, as it rhymed with fair. If someone left wicken (rowan) out at your door they were calling you chicken, not as in a coward, but rather as a term of affection. A neighbour trying to call you a liar would leave briar.
A nut or nut branch by your door was someone’s way of suggesting a slut lived there, a word which in the past meant closer to slovenly, rather than promiscuous (gorse was used for that). Of all the May folk customs, the tradition of May Birching is very much a relic of our remote rustic past, when everyone in a village literally did know everyone else. It largely died out in the 19th century.
Past Cure - May Dew
Belief in the revitalising power of May dew is surely an ancient one. Catherine of Aragon observed the custom of collecting May dew in 1515, and clearly, the practice didn’t start with her. The old convention is for young women and girls to go out well before dawn on May Day morning, collect dew from grass and hedges, and use it to wash their faces. The morning moisture was desirable throughout the whole of May but was thought to be most potent on May Day morning.
Anointing the face with May dew was not only considered lucky but was believed to be an effective beauty treatment, too. It was thought to keep the complexion youthful and clear any spots and blemishes. It was also held by many to be a powerful healing substance.
Samuel Pepys, in his diary entry for 10th May 1669, moaned that his wife and maidservants had woken him up about three in the morning while they were getting ready to collect May dew. He told them to be careful out and about at such an hour, then he went back to sleep.
The custom is still alive today in many areas of Britain. If you are in Edinburgh this May Day and head to Arthur’s Seat at about 4am, you may very well see people there washing their faces in the dew.
Sign of the Times - May Goslings
For many years in the far north of England, the day for pranks and japes was not April Fools Day but May Goslings, held on 1st May. The custom dates from at least 1791, and likely before. It petered out in the 1950s.
The tricksters, typically young men of the town, would be out in the early hours setting up their pranks. One important rule was that the tomfoolery had to stop by midday.
A common hoax employed on May Goslings was the swapping around of shop signs. The boys would call those at the receiving end of the leg-pulls the ‘May Goslings’.
Lamb to the Slaughter - The Holne Ram Roast
The beautiful Dartmoor village of Holne was once host to a rather dramatic May Day ritual. The traditional ‘Ram Roast’ dates back centuries and is possibly linked to the pagan Beltane (the Gaelic May Day). Before dawn on May Day, young men of the Holne area would meet, trek up into the moor, and find a ram lamb.
They’d run the lamb into the village where it was tied to a menhir (a standing stone). Here its throat would be cut and the lamb spit-roasted. The cooked meat would then be passed around the ravenous assembled villagers. Today the May Day event in Holne is essentially a village fete, without the slaying of a sacrificial lamb.
Going for a Song - May Singing
Every May Day, at 6am, a large crowd gathers around Magdalen Bridge in Oxford, including many on boats in the river, to see, or rather hear, an ancient tradition.
This is the May Singing at Magdalen College, part of the city’s annual May Morning celebrations. Here, choristers sing a hymn and a madrigal to the delight of the thronging masses of locals and students below. Later in the day, local Morris dancers entertain those out and about in the city’s main streets.
Magdalen’s May Singing ritual is likely Tudor in origin, but in those days, it was practically a concert, kicking off at 4am with a lengthy playlist. One May morning in the late 18th century the choir was late to the tower and only had time for one hymn. Since that time the singing has been considerably shorter.
Church Roll - May Day Cheese Grand Prix
Every May Day the picturesque Gloucestershire village of Randwick hosts an ancient ceremony known as the Randwick Wap. It was held possibly from as early as the 14th century until the late 19th century when it was banned for being too boozy and rowdy. It was revived in the 1970s and continues today.
Traditionally, at dawn on May Day, three wheels of cheese were decorated and then carried with much pomp to the village churchyard, where the cheeses would be rolled three times around the old church. (OK, they didn’t race the cheeses, admittedly, but it’s funny to imagine that happening!).
The cheeses would then resume their procession to the village green, where every gathered villager would get a piece of the dairy product.
Today the ceremony sees a Wap Mayor and Wap Queen, who file through the village before other figures such as a Mop Man who wets the ground as he goes. The Wap Mayor is dunked in the village pond and cheeses are rolled down a slope before being scoffed by bystanders.
Any Witch Way - Rowan-Tree Witch Day
On 2nd May, celebrated anciently in Cleveland, Yorkshire, one person from each household would rise at dawn and go out and gather branches and twigs from a rowan tree. The twigs would then be fixed onto every door of every house and left there until they’d fall out.
In Europe, the rowan has been associated with magic for centuries. In the Cleveland area in bygone days, people would carry bits of rowan twig around with them in their pockets or purses as a protection against witchcraft. Farmers in particular were always on guard against the secret spells of witches. They’d keep rowan twigs and if their draught horse stopped suddenly they’d give the workhorse a quick dig with the rowan branch, or perhaps a witchwood branch if they’d run out. This they believed would break the witch’s immobility spell placed on the animal.