Calling all May Queens. Repeat! Calling all May Queens.
Don’t panic! May Day may be the distress signal for sailors caught in a tight spot, but it also has a far happier association, and one with deep roots in the best of British traditions.
Unbelievable as it seems, 1 May – May Day! – is already upon us. In the UK this is regarded as the start of summer. Admittedly, this isn’t always reflected in the weather. But come rain or shine, life stops on the May bank holiday weekend. It’s a chance to welcome back the sun and fun with a knees-up, a party, and maybe, if you’re lucky, even a guest appearance by flower-decked Morris dancers, shaking a leg in their funny white costumes, bells a-tinkling at their ankles.
Once upon a time women held that May Day had magical powers. Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, would rise early on 1 May with her ladies-in-waiting to bathe in the spring dew, hoping to rejuvenate their complexions. Sadly, you’re unlikely to spot any maidens tumbling moistly in a field or park near you. But there are still plenty of delightful rituals if you know where to look.
No May Day village fête is complete without its little girl or boy, waiting to be crowned May Queen or King in a wreath of flowers. The very best also feature a May Pole, with laughing children weaving colourful ribbons around it. Historically, this ritual took place around the tallest tree in the village, until the practically minded Victorians introduced the pole, an eminently portable substitute.
These odd rites date back long before Christianity, to the pagan and Roman festivals, Beltane and Floralia, which were dedicated to the birth of a new year, brimming with ripe abundance. In more prosaic terms, May was also extremely welcome, because finally livestock could be put out to pasture, and milk yields would soar. It was a day to celebrate because it was about life coming back to life – a sentiment that has rarely felt more important than in 2022.
If you have the pleasure of spending time with a little May Queen or King this weekend, perhaps you could find a moment to sit down and weave a daisy chain or two. A moment to share and create fresh stories about this lovely holiday, which reminds us how the best of the past can be renewed.