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Spring Rites and Oxford May Day Celebrations

posted on Saturday 27th May

Categories: Events, Oxford
Article tags: culture, customs, England, English, Magdalen College, May, Maypole, Oxford, spring rites, springtime, tradition

In England, traditional English May Day rites and celebrations include crowning a May Queen and dancing round a Maypole.May Day Oxford 2017

Much of this tradition derives from the pagan Anglo-Saxon customs held during the fertile and rich month of “Þrimilci-mōnaþ” (Thremilce), the Old English name for May, meaning Month of Three Milkings, along with many Celtic traditions.

The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the Floralia, festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, held on April 27 during the Roman Republic era, and with the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane, most commonly held on April 30. The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures.

As Europe became more Christian, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and May Day changed into secular celebrations, perhaps best known for their traditions of dancing around the maypole and crowning the May Queen. Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of “May baskets,” small baskets of sweets or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbours’ doorsteps.


May Day Oxford 2017Historically, Morris dancing has been linked to May Day celebrations. Morris dance is a form of English folk dance usually accompanied by music. It is based on rhythmic stepping and the execution of choreographed figures by a group of dancers, usually wearing bell pads on their shins. Implements such as sticks, swords and handkerchiefs may also be wielded by the dancers.

In Oxford, Morris dancers perform regularly in the lead up to May celebrations, and on the day itself it is possible to share pints of ale with a dance troupe in the early hours of the morning. It is traditional for May Morning revellers to gather below the Great Tower of Magdalen College at 6am to listen to the college choir sing traditional madrigals as a conclusion to the previous night’s revelry. It is traditional for some people to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell.