May Day, children's garlands and customs


May Day, children's garlands and customs
   The most widespread and best known May Day activity in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the children's *garland custom. In essence, this involved groups of children *visiting houses in their community showing a garland, singing a song, and collecting money. The custom appears to have grown directly from the earlier adult activities of 'bringing in the May' (see *May, bringing in), and to have proliferated during the 19th century. Children's garlanding was exactly right for the new romantic rural consciousness which was a growing force in the nation's literary circles, and was just the sort of thing the early folklor-ists liked to find. However, the practice was not found all over the country, being strongest in the south and Midlands and parts of the west country and almost completely absent in the north and most of East Anglia - a distribution which is puzzling.
   Within the same time-frame there was a steady move away from self-organization amongst the children towards increased adult involvement in planning and organization. Adult intervention brought a trend away from small bands of children towards larger, better organized and controlled groups. Nearly all the *regional folklore collections in the right areas include examples of children's May garland customs, but Flora Thompson's fictionalized autobiography Lark Rise (1939: chapter 13) is often singled out as the archetypal evocation of the custom. Garlands could be large or small, but always designed to be portable and relatively robust. Naturally, the larger groups tended to present larger more intricate structures. Many were spherical or bell-shaped, with wooden or wire hoops forming the basic structure which was covered in flowers, greenery, ribbons, coloured paper, and so on. These would normally be carried on a pole, between two people. Hand-held garlands tended to be more like decorated poles, and were obviously less elaborate (N&Q 6s:3 (1881), 386). Even without overt adult organizational interference, the children usually had set roles to play in the garlanding party - the Queen (elected or self-appointed) being the most important, sometimes a King, sometimes maids of honour, footmen, coat-holder, and so on. In almost all recorded cases, the mayers had a traditional song to sing or at least a rhyme to recite. A number of these rhymes fit into the general pattern of visiting custom songs, having direct parallels in *mumming. *souling, *wassailing, and so on. The songs were often collected and published independently, and many early folk song collections include them. See Ruddock, Gerish, and Hamer for a number of versions from Leicestershire/Rutland, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire respectively, Judge for an overall systematic analysis.
   A regular, but not ubiquitous, feature was to place a dressed and decorated doll (sometimes more than one) in the centre of the garland, or in front of it. She was usually called something like Her Lady, or The Queen, and treated with great respect. Commentators assume she represented the Virgin Mary. In some places, it was the doll which was given precedence, rather than the garland, transported in a decorated box or basket:
   May Day 1881: ... at Teignmouth, in Devon, the May babies came round as usual. Parties of girls and children go from house to house, each party carrying a dressed doll laid in a box, and decked with flowers. They cry 'Will you look at my May baby?' and of course they expect you to pay for that privilege . . . (N&Q 6s:3 (1881), 386)
   The doll was often covered by a cloth or veil, which could be dramatically drawn aside to 'show' the splendours within, or could be left in place if the visited householder refused to offer a contribution.
   Garlands and dolls were not the only May Day activity for children, and there are several customs which appear to be unique to particular areas. In Burnley in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, the boys and girls had different things to do, The girls went round with their 'maypole', a garland made from two hoops nailed to a broom handle to form a bell shape, covered in crepe paper and with long ribbons attached for the girls to hold as they danced round. The boys would enact a performance of a dancing-bear. One would put a sack over his head, tied at the corners to make ears, and with eye and mouth holes cut out, to be the bear. The other would lead him on a rope, carrying a broom handle for a pole, and reciting traditional gibberish on the lines of 'addy addy ompompay' in imitation of the real bear-minders (Burnley Express and News (6 May 1922, 1 Feb. 1980, 1 Feb. 1983).
   A journalistic piece in the Evening Standard (1 May 1928) details the writer's unsuccessful search for the 'spirit of May Day' in the London of the time until he finally found it:
   wandering gloomily through Bermondsey, I found what I had been seeking. From a patch of waste ground came the sound of young laughter and the wheezing of a mouth-organ. A dozen small children were moving solemnly in a circle, each grasping in a grubby hand a piece of string about four feet long, the other end of which was tied to the top of a broomstick, the latter embedded a few inches in the earth.The broomstick was crowned with a piece of faded ribbon. I approached the children, asked them what they were doing. They stared at me in silence for a moment, then one little girl, pointing to the broomstick, said 'Why, this is our maypole. It's May Day today. Didn't you know?'.
   In the 1950s, collecting material for their Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (1959: 25562), Iona and Peter Opie discovered a number of May Day customs still current, such as garlanding in isolated villages, including Bamp-ton, Wheatley, and Lower Heyford in Oxfordshire, and *Abbotsbury in Dorset, home-made maypoles in Shrewsbury (a pram wheel, set on a pole, covered with crepe paper and streamers), and even, at Blackburn, the boys' dancing-bear as described above. They also reported the *May dew belief (and practice) still current in many parts.
   ■ Flora Thompson, Lark Rise (1939), chapter 13; Wright and Lones, 1938: ii. 200-45; Anne Elizabeth Baker, Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases (1854): ii. 421-9; Elizabeth Ruddock, 'May Day Songs and Celebrations in Leicestershire and Rutland', Trans. of the Leicestershire Archaeological & Historical Society 40 (1964/5), 69-84; W. B. Gerish, 'The Mayers and Their Song', Trans. of the East Hertfordshire Archaeological Society 2 (1904), 214-28; F. B. Hamer, 'May Songs of Bedfordshire', JEFDSS 9 (1961), 81-90.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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