Today is May Day, and around the world millions of people have taken to the streets in protest and/or celebration. Most people know the 1st of May as International Worker’s Day or Labour Day, and indeed the majority of events have been held in support of worker’s rights and the labour movement.
However, Oxford being Oxford, both town and gown like to do things differently. Over here, people take to the streets on the 1st of May for an entirely different reason, one which is far older than Labour Day, and indeed was established before the concept of IWD even existed. In Oxford, we celebrate the 1st of May for the original reason – because it is the traditional start of the summer. Each year, thousands gather to hear the Hymnus Eucharisticus sung from the top of Magdalen Tower at 6am, before moving into the city for a street festival featuring music, processions and – my personal favourite – Morris Dancers. The tradition of May Morning in Oxford goes back hundreds of years, and continues to be a beloved local festival.
I adore traditions like this, especially those that evoke the folklore of the country. While I have absolutely no problem with the concept of International Worker’s Day itself, I do think it is a bit of a shame that it is held on the 1st, as it somewhat eclipses the age-old traditions of May Day. People now tend to associate the date with industrial disputes and the urban class conflict, rather than the joyous celebrations of rural people and the bright heralding-in of a new summer. The festival is one of those rare moments when modern people can connect with their traditional folk beliefs and heritage, and re-establish a link with the cycles of Nature that in our modern age often get forgotten or ignored.
Another reason I love Oxford’s May Morning in particular is that it is the sort of festival which is especially beloved by the eccentrics that Britain is so well known for – the sort of people who drink Real Ale and mead, smoke pipes and engage their spare time in traditional arts and crafts. They usually remain fairly hidden and obscure for most of the year, tucked away in universities and the counties, but during events like this they have the chance to shine; the opportunity to dust off their Morris gear and ukuleles and proudly display themselves and their talents to the world!
We had many such wonderful eccentrics present at May Morning. The old, bearded gentlemen leading the Morris Dances with amateur enthusiasm; the folk singers dressed all in green playing antique bagpipes; the painted Wicca and neo-pagan mob; the friendly lady who offered to bathe people in sage incense (a gypsy tradition, apparently) and then hug them for sheer joy afterwards.
This may all sound quaint, cosy and romantic, and indeed it probably is. However, I truly think we need these sort of people in our society. It is only thanks to these eccentric ladies and gentlemen that we have managed to stay connected to our deep folk roots. It is they who kept the fire of folk music alive when it was in danger of dying out. It is they who remember the old tales and continue to practise traditional skills like blacksmithing, forestry and medieval archery, reminding us that the past is not just something that exists within the pages of books, but that was once alive and vibrant. As exciting as our modern world of hyper-fast communication, gleaming technology and digital knowledge is, I think it is worth remembering that we are still creatures of Nature, and that for all we have gained through technological progress, we are forever in the danger of losing the traditions of our ancestors and connections to the Earth that we once had.
With that, I raise a metaphorical jug of ale to your health, toast you wassail and wish you a happy May Day!