Look Back With Little: Celebrating May Day

Youngsters try their hand at maypole dancing outside Wroxton College in 1982
Youngsters try their hand at maypole dancing outside Wroxton College in 1982

In Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford and Christine Bloxham’s The World of Flora Thompson Revisited, May Day has been described as ‘happiness on a day as near perfection as anything can be in human life’.

I strongly suspect that were he alive today, local historian Dr Ted Brinkworth would have recognised how closely the Fine Lady statue epitomises the spirit of that occasion.

In ‘Old Banbury’ he favoured the idea that riding a cockhorse, maypole dancing and the appearance of the lady on the white horse were all part of May Day festivities in the Anglo-Saxon period even after conversion to Christianity.

These embraced rites that were celebrated in honour of the Earth Goddess in the springtime and especially around May Day.

Local customs followed a general pattern.

Youths would go to the wooded area on Crouch Hill before day break and return later in processions with boughs, garlands and a maypole.

A May Queen was chosen in the likeness of the goddess and seated on a white horse, the symbol of the deity.

There would be music and dancing, flowers strewn in her way to the central places of the town, probably near the present cross.

Here a maypole was set up, a precursor to junketing and feasting that continued to the end of the day.

During this part of the proceedings there would be ceremonial eating of especially made cakes, which over time may have evolved into the Banbury Cakes we know today.

This supposition of a relationship between local May Queens and the Fine Lady is most interesting.

For instance were the rings on her fingers and bells on her toes ancient marks of honour?

At the end of the 16th century zealous Puritans led by Banbury’s MP, Anthony Cope of Hanwell, succeeded in bringing about the demolition of all Maypoles within the district and the May Queen and her pageant were absent from the Banbury scene for over two centuries.

An analysis of May Day happenings since about 1920 reveals that the old enthusiasms highlighted by Dr Brinkworth had resurfaced again, more in villages and less in Banbury than may once have been the case.

One exception was St John’s Church who each year appointed a May King and Queen and had a procession. In 1964 the sun shone on 11 year old Marie Louise Meredith and her crown bearer 5 year old Steven Hawke.

A year later the May Queen ceremony was part of a revival of village traditions at Ratley.

Despite bad weather the local primary school made it an occasion to remember for Glynis Thomas (age 11) and her attendants Rosemary Halliday and Elizabeth England.

After the crowning ceremony there was an exhibition of maypole dancing.

By contrast and in the preceding year Brackley’s May Day Festival had Morris Dancing at its centre.

In 1982 there were notable celebrations in Chipping Warden and outside Wroxton College.

The first of these was quite an occasion for May Queen Laura Buckingham (age 10) who was accompanied by Rachel Venning (age 4) and Frances Bourne (age 6).

Although a village event, the contribution made by Chipping Warden primary School was crucial.

For instance Laura made her own crown and the other children marched the village streets to music played by Banbury’s St John’s Cadet Band.

In the case of Wroxton the emphasis was on Maypole dancing which was entirely foreign to most of the American students.

Having said this, it was good to read in the Guardian’s report that many Americans entered into the spirit of the occasion and joined in the fun.

Originating in the USA in the late 19th century, May 1st is also known as ‘Labor Day’ and celebrated as such in many countries with political rallies and parades.

In 1925 Banbury Labour Party invited all-comers to a May Day Carnival Dance in the Town Hall.

Newman’s orchestra played, fancy dress was an option and limes were an interval treat.