Turning Year: May Day – a time for celebration

Swallows and sand martins are back on the coast, and last week we even had a taste of summer. Now, as May approaches, it’s back to cold winds and woollies.

Really, we shouldn’t be surprised. But who can resist the myth of May — longer days, lush growth, and bright blossom?

No wonder May Day became a time for celebration. Our forebears flocked to parades featuring Robin Hoods, Maid Marians, May Queens and Morris men. Couples danced around the maypole, dancing milkmaids carried milk-pails trimmed with flowers. Even chimney sweeps took to the streets, aided by Jack-in-the-Green, a man covered from head to foot in leaves.

May 1 was a significant time when England’s economy was agricultural. Animals left their byres, folds and home fields and went out to summer pastures; the dark half of the year was ending and the light half beginning.

England’s first record of May Day comes from Lincoln around 1240, where the bishop complained about priests joining in games, “which they call the bringing-in of May.” The wayward clerics were in the woods collecting greenery, along with everyone else.

Folk hung leafy branches over their doorway because it brought good fortune. Birch and hazel were popular, but luckiest of all was a branch of hawthorn bearing blossom.

May Day was a huge festival until Cromwell’s Commonwealth stamped on enjoyment. But the May revels sprang back after the restoration of Charles II. Even when the Industrial Revolution drew workers from countryside to town, people continued to celebrate May Day. If they couldn’t find real leaves and flowers, they used coloured ribbons and paper flowers instead.

However, in Britain’s north and west — Scotland’s Isles and Highlands, Cumbria, Wales, Devon, Cornwall and the Isle of Man — the climate was harder and the mood less celebratory. There, people feared this transitional time. Beltane, the eve of May Day, brought out evil powers bent on a last fling, bringing illness to infants and young animals.

The traditional remedy was fire. Beltane fire was kindled in a ritual manner, using friction to ignite wood. This “need-fire,” powerful against disease and witchcraft, was taken to light bonfires and domestic hearths. Cattle were driven between two bonfires, and as the flames died down people leapt over the embers, some carrying children in their arms. In remote areas these ancient customs survived into the nineteenth century.


Next week a relic of another old custom will be carried out in Whitby. Early in the morning on Ascension Eve, two men in wellies will squelch across the mud of the upper harbour carrying hazel stakes and willow wands. They’re going to plant the Penny Hedge.

This unpretentious event can be traced back to 1148, according to entries in two surviving registers compiled at Whitby Abbey. Legend says it’s a penance, given to three hunters who speared a monk instead of their quarry, a wild boar.

At sunrise on Ascension Eve, they and their descendants were to cut a set amount of wood, carry it to the harbour, and there build a fence strong enough to withstand three tides. If these conditions were not met, their lands would be forfeited to the Abbey.

So there it is. If you want to watch the Penny Hedge being built, you’ll have to be down near Whitby’s swing bridge well before 9am next Wednesday, May 4.