The Ladies' Tea Guild

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

May Day and spring traditions in the Victorian era.

Primroses.  Photo: Nikolay Dimitrov.
The Victorian era is famous for its nostalgia and love of sentimental customs. Many Victorian traditions have roots going back hundreds of years, often including veiled references to Medieval Celtic folklore and pagan deities.  In the Victorian era, May Day, or May 1, was the middle of spring, and was marked with a fair, parade, dances, and lots of floral decorations.  The traditional celebrations often began with “bringing in the May”, which involved getting up very early in the morning on May Day, and going into the country to pick flowers to decorate the town with, as well as make preparations for the parade and other festivities.  Women were also said to bathe their faces with dew from the grass and flowers on May morning, to preserve their beauty. 
Cowslips.  Photo: Nickolay Dimitrov.

Flowers were woven into garlands and wreaths, posies for people to wear, and bouquets to fill May baskets, which were decorated heavily, and hung on doors around town.  Making and filling May baskets, and then secretly delivering them to friends’ and neighbors’ doors, knocking on the door, and running away without being seen, was a favorite May Day amusement: if the recipient caught you delivering your May basket, they could claim a kiss!  During the Victorian era, it was also considered an exercise in true generosity, giving without expecting anything in return. 
Pansies.  Photo: Nikolay Dimitrov.

The parade was traditionally led by a May Queen, supposedly the most beautiful teenage girl in the village, who was crowned with flowers and attended by several other girls.  The girls all wore white, with flowers in their hair, and danced and sang as they followed the May Queen, who opened the fair with a speech.  According to folklore, the May Queen represented the Roman goddess Flora, or the Celtic Earth goddess, the personification of Spring, and it was considered an honor for a girl to be chosen. 

Dances at the May Fair included traditional Morris dancing, which was performed by groups of men dressed in green and white with flowers on their hats, often with masks or painted faces; they tied bells to their legs which would ring as they danced with swords, sticks and handkerchiefs.  The movements, costumes, and noise of Morris dancers symbolized scaring away evil from the community. 
Violets.  Photo: Nikolay Dimitrov.

Dancing around a May pole was another type of dance for May Day; the Maypole was a tall pole erected in the middle of a clearing, decorated with flowers and long ribbons attached to the top.  Different age groups – especially children and the young adults – danced in specific patterns, each holding the end of a ribbon, and wove the ribbons in a pattern around the pole as they danced round and round. The May pole dance celebrated youth, fertility, and the changing of the seasons. 
Lily-of-the-valley.  Nikolay Dimitrov.

Other May Day activities included riding hobby horses in races, having archery tournaments, and feasting.  The May Day celebrations were often concluded with a bonfire and more alcohol, which led to more rowdy and less-proper entertainments like ribald songs and unrestrained sexual activity.  In response, proper Victorians minimized the connection with pagan religious tradition, and instead enjoyed the sunshine, flowers, giving gifts, and dressing up, with secular, community-oriented festivals that enabled people to take a break for some music, dancing, feasting and games.  So whether you re-create the ancient pagan traditions or the antique Victorian ones, this is the season for flowers and enjoying the outdoors! 

“Bringing in the May” by Jennifer Cutting
“May Queen”
“The Queen’s Scullery: Bringing in the May”
“A Historical Look at May Day”
“May Day Baskets”, Victoria magazine
“West Cornwall May Day celebrations”
“Morris dance”
“Internet Book of Shadows”
“Family May Crowning”


Bernideen said...

thank you for this great information!

South Bay Ladies' Tea Guild said...

You're welcome Bernideen! It was fun to research and write, plus, I'll be making May baskets with my tea guild next weekend so I get to put the information to practical use!

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Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
And, while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn
Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each,
So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
-- William Cowper (1731-1800)
"The Winter Evening" (Book Four), _The Task_ (1784)