Saffron Walden

May Day Memories



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This article is reproduced with permission from the Herts & Essex Observer who provide news and feature coverage of the same area of Uttlesford represented by the Recorders of Uttlesford History. The Observer is part of Herts & Essex Newspapers, the leading newspaper group in East and North Hertfordshire and West Essex. This quality, paid circulation newspaper, has been serving the local community since 1861.


From: Observer 12 May 2008

May Day memories

by Sandra Perry

NOSTALGIA this week takes a timely look back at the origins of May Day, maypole dancing and May queens.

They are all rooted in the pagan fertility festival to celebrate the arrival of spring and return of the sun, says Manuden historian Fiona Bengtsen.

May Day is a complex mix of ancient Celtic and Roman festivities which includes sun and tree worship.

’The idea of erecting a tree in the village was to recreate, for a day or two, the forest within the town; to bring back the wild spirit of growth and thus fertility’, said Fiona.

’In 1644, the phallic symbol of the maypole so horrified the Puritans that the festival was banned and not revived until the reign of Charles II [1660].’

Children dancing and singing around a short maypole bedecked with ribbons is a relatively new tradition from Victorian times. The original dance around the tree was probably a chain dance performed by young men and women, placed alternately, winding in and out clockwise - the direction in which the sun revolves.

Originally, a leaf-clad young woman, the May Queen, represented the spirit of vegetation and she was hijacked by the Romans to become the goddess Flora - hence the virginal white dress and the floral crown.

’When the Christian church took over these ancient practices it must have taken time to persuade villagers to change their ways’, said Fiona. ‘Today, May Day is just a national holiday, but vestiges of the old traditions continue.’

Two elderly women from Saffron Walden - both in their 90s - remember Garland Day, as May 1 used to be known.

Elsie Stone, of Castle Street, said: ‘We used a hoop, or sometimes a cross, to decorate with flowers. We went up to Westley Wood to pick the bluebells and there were plenty of pagels [an Essex word for cowslips] in the fields.’

Maggie Gypps, also of Castle Street, said: ‘You'd trim the hoop halfway round so you could hold it, then they were immersed in a barrel of water all night long. The next day you'd go round different houses asking “Please, have you a penny for the garland?' for a bit of pocket money”.’

She remembered a Mr Farnham who would throw sweets out in the street for children to pick up.

Bringing the custom more up to date, Jan Bright, of Victoria Avenue, Saffron Walden, remembers making garlands as late as 1957-58.

She said: ‘It was part of the Castle Street school activities for May Day. The hoops we used in the playground were decorated with branches and flowers, but we didn't go round town with them or collect money.’

Fiona says that in medieval times a doll dressed in white, but sometimes blue, was placed in the middle of each garland, possibly to represent the Virgin Mary.

© Herts & Essex Observer 2008