Five of the UK’s best May Day weekend traditions

Padstow May Day celebrations © Bryan Ledgard / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

Padstow May Day celebrations © Bryan Ledgard / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

We Brits have some odd traditions, it’s fair to say – and our eccentricities will be on full display over the coming bank holiday weekend. May Day – historically a time for welcoming the coming of summer – is when many of these idiosyncratic celebrations take place, with a host of ancient rituals reimagined for modern-day audiences. If you’re looking for a quintessentially British way to spend your extra day’s holiday, here’s the lowdown on the some of country’s most weird and wonderful happenings.

Jack in the Green Festival, Hastings

Jack in the Green Festival, Hastings © Duncan Price : Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Jack in the Green Festival, Hastings © Duncan Price / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Hastings’ atmospheric old town is the setting for this yearly gathering, which spans the entire bank holiday weekend and culminates in a spirited May Day procession. Its origins date back to 16th and 17th century work guilds, who every year would make increasingly inventive garlands for the annual May Day celebrations. In time, the Jack in the Green – a moniker given to both the garland-wearer and the garland itself – would be covered from head to toe, before the custom died out at the turn of the 20th century. Revived by Mad Jacks Morris Dancers in 1983, the celebration has become one of the South Coast’s most colourful celebrations.

Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss

Padstow Obby Oss © Bryan Ledgard / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss © Bryan Ledgard / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

Padstow’s May Day celebration – better known as ‘Obby ‘Oss Day – is one of Cornwall’s quirkiest annual events. After the town is festooned with flowers on May Eve, this folksy tradition continues with two May Day processions, one led by the Old obby oss and one by the Blue Ribbon obby oss, both of whom dance through the streets of Padstow accompanied by their followers and ‘teasers’. Eventually, the two processions meet at the maypole on Broad Street, before the ‘horses’ return to their stables at dusk. Ask five locals about the festival’s roots, and you’ll likely get five different responses, but it is thought to be inspired by ancient pre-Christian festivals or rituals.

Oxford May Morning

Oxford May Morning © Ed Webster / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

Oxford May Morning © Ed Webster / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY 2.0

Oxford May Morning kicks off at daybreak, so prepare for an early start. The celebration begins with a sunrise rendition of the Hymnus Eucharistus from the Great Tower, sung by the Magdalen College choir, while crowds gather beneath and along Magdalen Bridge. As the collective term for a number of disparate shenanigans, Oxford May Morning then continues with Morris dancing in Radcliffe Square, along with street performers, various traditional bands and other general festivities. Aim to be outside St. John’s College by around 8.30am for a boisterous singalong to round off proceedings. Many pubs open at 6am too!

Beltane Fire Festival, Edinburgh

Beltane Fire Festival © Pablo : Shutterstock

Beltane Fire Festival © Pablo / Shutterstock

Edinburgh’s annual fire festival revives the ancient Celtic ritual of Beltane, which celebrated the arrival of summer and the movement of livestock to pasture. Held on May Eve on Calton Hill, the festival begins at sundown with a procession starting at the National Monument, otherwise known as the Acropolis. The May Queen and the Green Man are followed by a cast of colourful characters, including cloaked torchbearers, fire puppeteers and processional drummers, culminating in the lighting of the bonfire and an assortment of immersive theatre performances lasting over three hours. The 2017 outing will see the festival’s biggest ever fire arch – a fitting way to mark the event’s 30th anniversary year.

Rochester Sweeps Festival, Kent

Rochester Sweeps Festival © Brian Fuller / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0

Rochester Sweeps Festival © Brian Fuller / Flickr Creative Commons CC BY-ND 2.0

Held over the entire bank holiday weekend, Rochester Sweeps Festival in Kent is a modern-day interpretation of the traditional chimney sweeps’ holiday of yesteryear. Along with the main attractions of the Jack in the Green awakening, Morris dancing, and the whirling Widdershin witches, the event also features live bands, a children’s funfair, an ale tent, and plenty of food and drink stalls, so there’s plenty to keep the whole family occupied. On the final day, proceedings conclude with a parade of Victorian sweeps which winds through town from its starting point on Star Hill.

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