May Day – ruined by the Puritans!

May Day celebrations have been more lamented than practised since the killjoy Puritans came on the scene, even if the village of Temple Sowerby still has a maypole (main image).

Origins of May Day celebrations

May Day, according to what seems a somewhat dry entry on Wikipedia:

‘is a public holiday in some regions, usually celebrated on 1 May or the first Monday of May. It is an ancient festival.. and a current traditional spring holiday in many European cultures. Dances, singing, and cake are usually part of the festivities.

While different nations look to different origins for the celebrations, the fact in Europe has to be simply that it is a celebration of spring, of blossom, flowers, the birth of lambs and calves; the days are longer, the frosts are fewer.… 

As the Celtic festival of Beltane (Calan Mai in Wales), it’s associated with lighting bonfires. As most Celtic festivals were! This site mentions that Beltane was a time for need fires. Which I did a post on that you can read here.

May Day at the DIY store

Today, for most of us, May Day is marked only by a bank (public) holiday on the nearest Monday. Giving many families a three-day weekend. For most, the nearest to a bonfire will be a barbecue in the garden. And the celebration of flowers will be a visit to the local garden centre – May Day lives on as a good time to buy summer bedding plants, with the risk of frosts almost gone! DIY stores also enjoy a roaring trade, as another modern ‘tradition’.

But you can still find old traditions, if largely set up by tourist venues to attract more visitors.

May Day in Westmorland

So was there a time when May Day was a ‘big thing’ for everyone? A look through the Westmorland Advertiser and Kendal Chronicle finds someone lamenting the end of the ‘good old days’.

So vitiated is the taste of this degenerate age, so absorbed are the other finer feelings of the soul 

in the all-consuming passion of overweening wealth, that pleasures connected with rural life appear to live only in the poet’s fabled song…

Yet a reference to the pages of a too much neglected bards will prove that our ancestors met not ‘the mother of flowers’ with the ungrateful indifference we see and grateful in different times. Beaumont and Fletcher speak ofMorris dancers and May games, of masques and revelries, held not in crowded drawing rooms, but ‘under the greenwood tree’.

Then the landowner did not disdain to mingle with the tiller of the soil .. at the return of May, he loved to greet the holiday merriment of his hardy peasantry with cordial sympathy…

And if the language sounds a little strange – the article was published in May 1818!

Blame those pesky Puritans

The writer reflects (and I read this after writing the above!) how: 

The custom of welcoming the leafy and flowery season of the year has been derived from a variety of nations… The fact is that the cause is the season itself and not in the nation. All countries are naturally glad of the return of an agreeable time.

In a sentence that made me smile, he or she talks of how May Day was scrapped by the Puritans:

“who first complimented heaven by attributing to it a dislike of seeing the world happy.”

Westmorland kept things going

According to the writer:

In Cornwall, Devonshire and Westmorland, May Day is still kept rustic cheerfulness: the many-coloured garland is carried about in triumph.

But all other references to May Day in Westmorland newspapers are ‘to let’ notices, with May Day a key date alongside the quarter days of Lady Day, Midsummer, Michaelmas, and Christmas, and ‘inbetween’ ones such as Candlemas.

In 1835, it was reported, in the Westmorland Gazette, that:

the wreaths and garlands on May Day were but ill furnished for this year


But this was just a line in the (lengthy) Agriculture Report for May. So Westmorland may have continued to celebrate May Day – but it wasn’t considered important enough to report on.

In 1838, under ‘This week, anniversaries etc,’ the Gazette includes:

May Day. A festival celebrated by our forefathers, of which scarcely a relic left.’

So if May Day feels like ‘nice to have a day off work, but otherwise no big deal’… I guess it has been that way for centuries.

Those Puritans had a lot to answer for!

  • I took the photo a couple of years back – on a ‘lovely’ August day!