To the folk community, May Day is right up there with Christmas in terms of calendrical importance. But it’s not just May 1st that carries significance. Throughout the UK, there are gatherings, rituals and festivals galore, all celebrating the pleasant month of May.
In the past, Tradfolk has looked at traditional May songs, and our latest May morning morris dancing directory now counts over 100 dance-outs. But what of the other May events? Which should you be packing your diary with before the big month arrives? Fear not, for we’ve been digging into some of the most fascinating May events the country has to offer – some old, some not so old, some pretty darn new, all of them just as delightful.
In this article, you’ll find…
- What is May Day and why is it celebrated?
- Bringing in the May
- Beltane Fire Festival
- Hastings Traditional Jack in the Green
- Dancing the Sun Up
- Deptford Jack in the Green
- The Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss
- Glastonbury Beltane
- Reach Fair
- The Minehead ‘Obby ‘Oss
- May Horns
- Helston Flora Day
- Bradford on Avon Green Man Festival
- Castleton Garland Day
- Whit Monday, Bampton
- Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling Competition
What is May Day and why is it celebrated?
In the traditional British calendar, May Day kicks off a whole month of celebrations intended to celebrate the end of winter’s darkness and the returning of warmth, light, rebirth and growth. The folklorist, Charlotte Burne, referred to it as the “freedom of summer” (1883), and anyone who has risen with the sun and attended (or taken part in) a May Morning dance-out can surely testify to the magic that Burne hints at.
The first recorded mention of May Day celebrations comes from the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, in 1240. Far from enjoying the festivities, he poured scorn on priests who involved themselves in, “games which they call the bringing-in of May”. His disdain for Maytime events was not widespread, as the sheer volume of rituals, customs, festivals and exuberance attests to the joy this time of year incited. For rural land workers right through to royalty, the fifth month was a cause for merrymaking. Whether people were outside, dancing around maypoles, or inside decorating their homes in greenery, this was a time to commune with nature and celebrate the world around them, and for those that hold the world dear, it has remained so ever since. on and throngs of visitors are welcomed, albeit strictly as observers.
May Events, 2023
Bringing in the May
What you get up to in the woods overnight is your decision entirely, but hanky panky would certainly be in keeping with tradition.
Traditionally, April 30th is both May Day Eve and Mischief Night, a time when the Bringing in the May rituals began. To partake, simply head to the nearest out-of-town patch of woodland after nightfall, gather foliage, then return the next morning to decorate your house with greenery. What you get up to in the woods overnight is your decision entirely, but hanky panky would certainly be in keeping with tradition. For more info, read our article on Bringing in the May.
Beltane Fire Festival
As the night falls, Edinburgh’s Calton Hill comes to life with a fiery spectacle, throbbing drumbeats, and a procession of intriguing characters, signaling the arrival of the Beltane Fire Festival. This festival, a modern adaptation of the ancient Celtic May Day celebration, has been drawing people from across the world since 1988 to celebrate the rebirth of summer and the fertility of the land.
The Beltane Fire Festival is nothing short of breathtaking, replete with the Procession of May Queen and the Death and rebirth of the Green Man, as well as a diverse range of performers, including acrobats, drummers, dancers, clowns, musicians, actors, puppeteers, artists, poets, and crafters. As the boundary between the audience and the performers blurs, visitors are invited to be a part of the stunning and memorable evening. For more info, head to beltane.org.
Dave Kelland, after having a few pints in the Normandy Arms, relieved himself in a field and was surprised to see worms surface from the ground.
While this doesn’t fall under the title of ‘May Events’ this year, on other years it does, and we feel you’d be missing out if we didn’t tell you more. The fascinating history of Blackawton’s Wormcharming tradition began in 1983 when Dave Kelland, after having a few pints in the Normandy Arms, relieved himself in a field and was surprised to see worms surface from the ground. Seeing potential in his newfound ability, Dave turned it into a competitive event. The first competition was held in 1984 and quickly grew in popularity, with many villagers involved in making it happen. In the early 2000s, Nick Smith revamped the event, and over the next eleven years, he brought new ideas and approaches to the competition. In 2013, Nat Lowson became the new Worm Master, leading the Blackawton International Festival of Wormcharming with his team of officials, apprentices, and local volunteers. The Wormcharming competition remains a vibrant and somewhat eccentric festival, bringing the community together to celebrate Blackawton’s somewhat eccentric heritage. For more information, head to wormcharming.co.uk.
April 28th-May 1st
Hastings Jack in the Green
Prepare yourself for one of the most vibrant and fascinating British May Day celebrations around – the Hastings Traditional Jack in the Green. This epic four-day event in the coastal town of Hastings is a must-see for those of a folkish disposition. With live bands, dancing, and an array of social activities, there’s plenty going on – get ready for a wild time. The highlight of the event is undoubtedly the procession on Bank Holiday Monday, which winds its way through the charming streets of Hastings Old Town. This incredible spectacle features an incredible cast of characters, dancers, drummers, and towering giants, all coming together to slay the Jack and release the spirit of summer. For more info, read our articles on the Hastings Giants and the Jack in the Green tradition.
Dancing the Sun Up
Amazingly, May 1st 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the first recorded dancing-up-of-the-sun.
Calling all morris dancers and morris supporters. It (by which we mean roughly 5am) is your time to rise! Amazingly, May 1st 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the first recorded dancing-up-of-the-sun (see our May Day Morris article if you don’t believe us), so come ye and dance like it’s going out of fashion… which it really isn’t because everyone knows morris dancing is the hippest thing in town these days, and by our reckoning, there’ll be at least 1500 of you hopping and stepping as the sun rises this coming May Day. For more info, read our May Day Morris article.
Deptford Jack in the Green
Get ready to dance through the streets of Deptford this May Day with the Fowlers Troop Jack in the Green. This urban tradition was revived by Blackheath Morris Men and friends in the 1980s, and now takes place every year in South East London or the City of London. The Fowlers Troop Jack in the Green is a revival of the original from the late 19th/early 20th century, which used to be taken out around Deptford on May Day. You’ll be able to see the Jack in the Green at various spots along the route, starting at the Dog and Bell (midday), then at the Sail Loft (12:30pm), Duke (1:15pm), Birds Nest (2pm), Royal Albert (3pm), Market Yard/ Job Centre (4pm), Villages Brewery (4:45pm), and then back to the Dog and Bell at 6pm. For more information on this tradition, read our Jack in the Green article.
The Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss
Locals believe it may date back to a French warship’s arrival off the coast of Padstow.
The Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss is a tradition unique to this Cornish coastal town, where a strange monster, led by a Teaser, dances through the town’s streets on May Morning to a hypnotic song. Despite scarce historical documentation, locals believe it may date back to a French warship’s arrival off the coast of Padstow. The ‘Oss has attracted wild conjecture, including Mary Macleod Banks’ assumption that it represented a pagan, sacred marriage between the earth and sky. However, historians have found that the earliest record of the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss dates from 1803, and it was largely unknown beyond its locale until Francis Etherington’s visit in 1907. Today, visitors throng to Padstow in their thousands, albeit only as onlookers. Only those with Padstow heritage can join the dance. For more info on the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss, read our artice on Beasts, Hobby Horses and the suspension of the normal.
The legendary Glastonbury Dragons are set to emerge from their secret lair beneath the iconic Glastonbury Tor.
Things go suitably nuts in Glastonbury as May arrives and the May events get underway. The town’s celebrations are a modern take on the Celtic Beltane festival, and they involve organisations from around Glastonbury, each bringing their own take on what that should involve. Kicking off the night before at the Assembly Rooms, the main focus is on May 1st, when the sacred waters are blessed at the White Spring followed by the raising of a maypole at Bushey Combe with dancing and music. The legendary Glastonbury Dragons are set to emerge from their secret lair beneath the iconic Glastonbury Tor shortly afterwards, at which point a May Fayre gets underway in Glastonbury Abbey Abbots Kitchen Field, running from 10:00am until 5:00pm. For more information, see the Glastonbury Dragons May Fayre listing.
King John’s grant of a charter in 1201 bestowed upon Reach the privilege of hosting an annual fair. Since then, come rain or shine, this beloved event has been held each year in this Cambridgeshire village. The original date, Rogation Monday, has since been replaced by the early May Bank Holiday, and will next take place on Monday, May 1st, 2023. As per tradition, the Mayor of Cambridge, accompanied by the Aldermen in their resplendent finery, will officially open the event, throwing pennies to the assembled masses as they pass. Expect the fair itself to include morris and maypole dancing, loads to eat and drink, a funfair, music, dancing and crafts. For more information, head to reachfair.org.uk.
The Minehead ‘Obby ‘Oss
Every year in the sleepy port of Minehead, a curious custom takes place over the first three evenings of May. It involves an eight-foot-long hobby horse, decorated with colourful roundels and ribbons, and carried by a man wearing a painted mask with a conical hood. The horse, known as the “Sailors Horse,” is paraded around town with its rope tail swishing behind it. According to folklorist R. W. Patten, “if it were not for the tail, the whole contraption would resemble not so much a horse as a ship, and this perhaps is the key to the riddle.” The tradition was first recorded in 1830 and is believed to have been moved from Christmas time to May Day.
“If it were not for the tail, the whole contraption would resemble not so much a horse as a ship.”R. W. Patten
For many years, only one hobby horse was in use, but the tradition was temporarily halted during the First World War. Since then, a second horse has been added to the custom, and there have been reports of a third horse that had “died out” around fifty years previously but has since been revived. Despite the similarities to the hobby horse custom in Padstow, Minehead’s tradition is lesser-known and less well-researched, according to folklorist E. C. Cawte. Nonetheless, locals claim that there was once a rivalry between Minehead’s hobby horse and that at the nearby town of Combe Martin, which also had its own hobby horse custom in the early nineteenth century. For more info on the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss, read our artice on Beasts, Hobby Horses and the suspension of the normal.
Head down to Penzance on the first Sunday in May and you’ll find a rather special celebration, bringing together locals and visitors alike. Just before the sun sets, a group of individuals adorned in green and white gather at the boundary between Penzance and Newlyn. With horns and drums in hand, they make their way towards the town centre, accompanied by a giant crow named Old Ned, all in an effort to “drive out the devil of winter” and welcome the warmth of summer.
Participants create traditional May whistles from sycamore sticks, which emit a distinctive high-pitched sound, adding to the mystical atmosphere.
As the procession reaches Larrigan River, the horns and whistles are blown with extra vigor, serving as a reminder of the once-banned May Day horns in old Penzance. At the heart of the Penzance May Horns festival, participants create traditional May whistles from sycamore sticks, which emit a distinctive high-pitched sound, adding to the mystical atmosphere. The evening culminates in a lively celebration in Penzance, complete with Cornish dancing, music, and delectable local cuisine. The Penzance May Horns festival is a vibrant and cherished tradition that unites the community and celebrates the arrival of a new season. For more info, follow the Cornish Culture Association’s Facebook Page.
Helston Flora Day
For centuries, the town of Helston in Cornwall has celebrated the annual tradition of Flora Day. Every 8th of May, the community comes together to mark the end of winter and the arrival of a new season of vitality and fertility. The town is adorned with floral arrangements and greenery to signify the spirit of renewal that the festival embodies. As the clock strikes seven in the morning and the big bass drum sounds, the festivities begin. Couples take to the streets, dancing their way through town and visiting selected houses and shops to drive out the darkness of winter and welcome in the light of spring. The day culminates in the Hal-an-Tow pageant, where the colourful procession of characters sings about Helston’s history, including the Spanish Armada, St. George, and the eternal battle between St. Michael and the devil. For more info, head to helstonfloraday.org.uk.
Bradford on Avon Green Man Festival
Bradford on Avon’s Green Man Festival is a celebration that claims to transcend time and space, taking attendees on a journey back to the mystical days of old when wolves roamed the land and witches cast spells in the shadows. This event pays homage to the ancient borderland of Wessex and Mercia, where travellers from far and wide converged at Broade Ford to visit the nearby hillfort and pay homage to the powerful deities of the time. Delve deep into your pagan roots and join in on the revelry, where you’ll find yourself surrounded by fantastical creatures partaking in strange dance rituals, along with one of the largest congregation of morris dancers in the folk calendar (300+ dancers and counting). Arrive wearing your best green garb and prepare to let loose your wild and untamed spirit. For more information, head to. boagreenmanfest.org.
Hunting the Earl of Rhone
Elaborate dress codes, drums, theatre, a little bit of drowning, and more murder than you would expect from such a tranquil village.
The Hunting of the Earl of Rone is a little-known and woefully under-celebrated tradition repeated yearly in Combe Martin, a small town in North Devon. It involves dances, a cast of unlikely characters, elaborate dress codes, drums, theatre, a little bit of drowning, and more murder than you would expect from such a tranquil village. It is enacted in a very particular manner; the ritual is curiously complex and drenched in forgotten symbolism, and some elements appear to be unique to this event. All of which begs the question: how did it come to this? For more info, read our article on Hunting the Earl of Rhone.
Whit Monday, Bampton
There is nowhere and nothing quite like this.
In his book, The English Year, Steve Roud describes the Bampton Morris dancing tradition as, “one of the classic scenes of the English village idyll”. It’s hard to disagree. Arriving in the midst of things early on a Whit Monday morning, there’s a strong sense of having been transported somewhere timeless. Morris dancers in full regalia flock the streets, monarchs for the day, crowned with bowler hats and floral wreaths. A Cake-Bearer ushers forth, carrying a lucky fruitcake on the hilt of a sword, distributing fortuitous pieces to those that make a donation. Extravagantly dressed Fools patrol the sides, a confusing mix of frivolity and menace as they punish misplaced steps, whipped into shape with a pig’s bladder on a stick. Crowds mill about in lush Cotswold gardens, the gates thrown open in a dew-soaked celebration of tradition. There is nowhere and nothing quite like this. For more information, read our Bampton Morris article.
Castleton Garland Day
Castleton Garland Day, also known as Garland King Day, is an annual event held on May 29th in Castleton (unless it falls on a Sunday, in which case it is moved to Saturday). The celebration sees the Garland King, atop a horse and wearing a heavy, bell-shaped garland of flowers that covers his upper body, leading a procession through the town. The custom is said to commemorate the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, and it coincides with Oak Apple Day. The tradition was initially believed to be an ancient form of nature worship, but extensive research by a local folklorist showed it to be a relatively new custom dating back to the late 18th-early 19th century, growing out of the village’s ecclesiastical rushbearing festival. The day involves constructing the garland, which weighs between 56 and 60 pounds, from garden flowers and a small posy named ‘The Queen’. The garland is then placed over the King’s head, and a procession around the town commences, accompanied by the Castleton Silver Band and young schoolgirls dressed in white carrying ‘Garland sticks’ twined with ribbons. The day concludes with maypole dancing and the ceremonial placing of the Queen posy on the war memorial. For more info, head to castleton-garland.com.
Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling Competition
Extreme sports, injuries, quality foodstuffs, and a massive plateful of WTF.
Of all the esoteric traditions and rituals that take place across the UK, the Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling contest is perhaps the best known. Try as we might, we can’t think of another ritual of this nature that has had an episode of a Netflix series devoted to it. Thousands of Youtube videos endeavour to make sense of it – “World’s Stupidest Competion” has had 23 million views – including a three-minute overview by the National Geographic. You might say that this is the only traditional custom from these parts ever to have gone viral – repeatedly – and it’s not hard to see why. The Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling contest is everything the 21st-century internet loves: extreme sports, injuries, quality foodstuffs, and a massive plateful of WTF. For more info, read our article on the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling Competition.