The British Isles have a rich and vibrant folk culture full of captivating customs and traditions that have been celebrated for centuries. An ancient festival celebrated for generations, May Day is an important date in our calendar, marking the start of summer and sparking celebrations across the country.
Celebrated on the 1st of May every year, the festival welcomes the symbolic start of summer, celebrating the warmer weather and the new blooms that it brings while signifying new life and new beginnings. In towns and villages across the country people gather together for fetes, parties and parades that keep old traditions alive for new generations.
May Day Traditions
As tradition denotes, the day is started by the crowning of a new May Queen, who is given a pretty tiara of flowers, and wearing traditional white gown she starts the celebrations and leads a parade of revellers through the streets. As the May Queen enjoys her spotlight, people dance and sing to a background of beautiful folk music and you’ll find people Morris dancing; with bells on their colourful costumes and handkerchiefs, sticks or swords accompanying their well-practiced moves, it’s a vibrant and eye-catching spectacle as they weave through the streets.
Perhaps one of the most well-known May Day traditions is the Maypole, which goes back across the centuries bringing communities together in joyful dancing. A tall pole traditionally made of wood stands with long ribbons flowing from the top to the ground, and it becomes the centre point for a beautiful folk dance. Boys and girls will each take a ribbon as they dance, weaving in and around each other to entwine their ribbons around the Maypole.
Here in Cornwall we have an amazingly rich history of legend and folklore, and May Day is celebrated through a host of local events incorporating well known activities like the Maypole and Morris dancers, while also including unique Cornish touches. Padstow, a coastal town situated not far from us here in St. Eval, holds it ‘Obby ‘Oss festivities on May Day every year. Beginning at midnight with the townspeople singing a traditional song, the day culminates in a boisterous parade of ‘Obby ‘Oss horse carvings through the town, symbolising the arrival of spring and fertility.
In recent years there has been a drive in Cornwall to revive traditional customs and bring them back into communities for new generations to take part in and enjoy, and on May Day you’ll find fun and festivities taking place across the county. A trio of neighbouring villages in Cornwall, Millbrook, Kingsand and Cawsand, are doing just that every year, not only celebrating May Day but also breathing new life into the Black Prince Flower Boat Procession. The procession is named after Edward of Woodstock, the first Duke of Cornwall, and is based on an old tradition, where apprentice boat builders would have to build a small boat and test their skill by sailing it on the water.
Our folk customs here in Cornwall are celebrated well beyond May Day, but May is a particularly busy month for traditional celebrations and revelry. Not long after 'Obby 'Oss and the Flower Boat Procession, the Cornish town of Helston holds its own traditional celebration. Helston Flora Day on the 8th of May is full of dancing and merriment; from the Furry Dance which sees Helston locals take part in a series of traditional dances, to the The Hal-an-Tow which is a theatrical play that takes place on the streets there's so much to learn and enjoy about Helston's famous Flora Day.
The festival Beltane is most commonly held on the first of May, or halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice. One of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals, it has been widely observed throughout Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man. Like other May Day festivals it marked the start of summer, and rituals were performed to protect the people, cattle and crops, while special bonfires were lit as their fires were thought to have protective powers.
While Beltane celebrations had started to fade out by the mid 20th-century, many of its customs have continued and in some areas it's been recently revived as a cultural event, and Celtic pagans and Wiccans have also observed Beltane as a religious holiday.
Calan Mai is the Welsh May Day holiday, and although it's held on the 1st of May traditional celebrations kick off the evening before. Known as May Eve and celebrated with bonfires, the night before is seen as a spirit night, where spirits can walk the Earth and powers of divination are possible.
Celebrating the time between summer and winter, Calan Mai would often include a symbolic mock fight between the two seasons. Players dressed to represent them would battle on stage before summer eventually win and crown a May King and Queen before feasts, dancing and song would begin.
We hope that you have a lovely May Day and enjoy the bank holiday weekend. We'd love to know about the ways you're celebrating this historic holiday, share with us on socials @stevalcandles, or via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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