Under the constant reminder that long haul flights do more environmental damage than Arnie with an uzi, it seems the right time to try travelling closer to home.
The first Monday in May is May Day, so we went along to the small village of Ickwell. Once, almost every village in England had a May Pole, but Ickwell is now one of the few villages in the country with a permanent May Pole. We joined the motorised procession of wet revellers as they made their way from the village pub. The youngest children celebrated the arrival of spring with remarkably good humour as the weather spitefully dowsed their parade. The kids wore flowers in their hair and traditional peasant’s smocks. Surprisingly there wasn’t a Nike slogan in sight, although the odd hoodie was graciously permitted as the weather lashed down upon a forest of golf umbrellas.
The parade ended at the village green with the May Pole, decorated in ribbons and flowers, towering above the crowds. There, we witnessed the crowning of the May Queen. The PA system banged out folk tunes that sung of daisy’s so white, forget-me-knots and of course, mayflowers - “Our Maypole we’ll braid our lovely maid. For she rules o’er the Maypole ring.”
Resting my plastic pint to watch the events, I was quickly told off by an indignant old dear. “Here you,” she told me. “I hope you’re going to pick that up!” I quickly reassured her that I had no intention of spoiling her beloved village green and she softened up a little. “This is my sixtieth festival, you know, I’ve been coming since I was a little girl. You see, over there, that’s my grand-daughter.” She pointed vaguely, but with obvious pride into the crowd of young children.
She might have looked as old as these hills, but the roots of Ickwell’s May Day celebrations have a much longer tradition than even this old lady.
Ickwell has been celebrating May Day since the days of the Tudors but the origins of May Day disappear into the midst of time. It’s no myth that May Day has its roots in ‘pagan’ Roman and Celtic mythology. In particular, the celebration of Flora, who before she was demoted to a brand of margarine, was once the Roman goddess of plants and flowers.
With their lives inextricably linked to the seasons, couples emerged from the dreary short winter days to celebrate spring. A lot has changed and it’s taken more than a thousand years to tame the raucous fertility celebrations of May Day into the tombola and skittles that were on offer in 2007. Don’t get me wrong though, there’s nothing wrong with skittles. The two cheeky old sods looking after the stall were good value. They put me in mind of the old curmudgeons from The Muppet Show, as they heckled their punters with misleading advice.
And it wouldn’t be May Day without the morris dancers, bearded men who clink their bells and wave their hankies with cider soaked enthusiasm. Strange thing is, despite the morris dancers now being considered as integral to May Day as Yorkshire Puddings are to roast beef, the morris dancers don’t have any connection to the day’s pagan roots. Instead they were just a form of entertainment that came over from the continent, probably around the 1500’s and quickly incorporated into the existing festivities.
Another surprise was that May Day isn’t even particularly English. There are more May Poles across France and Germany than there are in England. There’s even a healthy tradition in the USA, after European emigrants continued their celebrations over the Atlantic.
As well as incorporating morris dancers and fun fairs, May Day now even accommodates surrealist art. Our friend, Catherine, completed her arts degree by carving a May Pole and creating a video installation, featuring amongst others, Santa performing a morris dance.
May Day’s ability to adapt is probably the key to its continuing survival. The pagan gods might have been largely forgotten but their celebrations live on.