All Bells & Ribbons: The History of May Day

All Bells & Ribbons: The History of May Day

In British tradition, the first day of May is a celebrated with a particular, slightly peculiar, set of folklore customs. Of course, who wouldn’t want to celebrate the warmer weather by dancing with bells and handkerchiefs, and skipping around a tall pole decked in ribbons? But in case you’re wondering where these customs actually came from, we’ve compiled a short history which explores the evolution of Britain’s May Day traditions.

Dating back to the Dark Ages, the roots of May Day lie in the ancient Celtic festival ‘Beltane’. It marked the first day of summer and, along with three other festivals, divided the Celtic year into quarters. At this time, Britain was far more reliant on farming, and so Beltane was a celebration associated with agriculture and the fertility of the land and livestock. Gathering on the village green on May Day, men and women danced around the maypole, a slender tree with the branches removed and coloured ribbons tied to the top. Morris Dancing also became associated with May Day, with references to the lively folkdance found in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s plays.

Although Celtic in origin, the May Day festival was tolerated by the Church and state up until the Protestant Reformation. The revels of the festival caused outrage among Puritans, and during his time as Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell banned maypoles and dancing, alongside theatres, gambling, pubs, and even Christmas. It didn’t last long though. Only a few years later, Charles II was restored to the throne, and his supporters celebrated by putting up maypoles once more.

A few centuries later, the Victorians took a particular shine to the festival, charmed by its ‘rustic delight’. Propriety ignored May Day’s fertility symbolism however, and instead dancing around the maypole became a game for children.

Nowadays, May Day is still celebrated in many towns and villages, who gather outside to watch the merry Morris Dancing and children skipping round the maypole, often complemented by traditional dress and music.

If you’re looking for other ways to celebrate May Day, why not try out a few other traditional customs? One tradition suggests heading out before sunrise to “bring in the May” – this involves gathering flowers to decorate your house and to make garlands for friends to wear. Folklore also sweetly suggests making up a “May basket” of flowers to take to someone who needs cheering up.

Another early morning tradition involves rising before dawn to wash your face in dew – which, according to folklore, helps keep your complexion beautiful for the following year. That being said, we reckon a good skincare routine might just do the trick instead, and save you such an early morning! You can nourish your skin whilst bringing the scents of summer into your home with our natural Lavender Body Butter and Spearmint Lip Balm.