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04/30/2009 Archived Entry: "May"
There is no doubt that May 1 was formerly one of the most significant dates in the rural calendar. At the time of Merrie England it was marked by a host of colourful celebrations. They ranged from maypole dancing to parades of May Queens by way of sporting contests and parties with joyful music, singing, feasting and drinking, not to mention fairs and markets. Workers were given the day off to join the festivities and in short, a good and merry time was had by all.
Such was the attraction of May Day that in 1978 international socialists attempted to hi-jack the date as International Labour Day with parades of tanks in Russia and marches of left-wing solidarity in other countries. England’s Labour Government joined that kind of fun by declaring the date a Bank Holiday as a sympathetic political gesture for the workers but it appears that the idea was not too popular. Ordinary people – the workers - much preferred their maypole dancing and partying to the idea of making political capital out of the date.
However, there were other attempts to kill the rustic fun of this date. In 1644, for example, maypole dancing was forbidden by the Puritans because they considered it to be a pagan festival, but many villagers steadfastly refused to destroy their maypoles.
There are lovely stories of battles to save the maypoles. At Sinnington near Pickering for example in 1701, a band of Puritans known as Broadbrims due to the style of their hats invaded Sinnington during maypole dancing. They set about violently trying to destroy the pole and its ribbons, and to disrupt the party atmosphere. Other groups of Puritans did likewise at Helmsley, Kirkbymoorside and Slingsby. However, the local lads managed to beat them off and it was said that at Slingsby there was "a great dordum of a fight."
Today, maypole dancing has returned to its former glory in many villages in this region. In most cases maypole dancing is not performed on May Day but upon the nearest Saturday or Sunday, often with school children being the dancers.
I have a record of maypoles in Foston, Staithes, Roxy, Slingsby, Sinnington, Langton near Malton, Masham, West Burton, Bolton-on-Swale, Appleton Wiske, Crakehall, Whitby, Robin Hood’s Bay, Coneysthorpe, Welburn, Clifton near York, Thorpe and Burnsall in Wharfedale, Skinningrove, Ovington near Richmond, Otley, Aldborough near Boroughbridge with the daddy of them all being at Barwick-in-Elmet near Leeds.
At 86 feet high, this is the tallest in the country and requires a crane and a great deal of manpower to erect it. I am sure there are other maypoles elsewhere within this region. In many case, morris dancing and the election of a May Queen accompanies the maypole dances.
One very popular game when I was a child in Eskdale was known as May Gosling. It was rather like the April Fool pranks played on April 1 because children played jokes upon each other, and anyone who fell victim to a joke was known as a May Gosling. Rather like April Fool jokes, the pranks had to be perpetrated before 12 noon. I cannot recall the demise of that sport but I have never heard of modern children playing at being a May Gosling. Maybe there is a modern rule against such joyful things?
Other May Day events that appear to have vanished include Birch Twig Day when birch twigs were cut and taken indoors to ward off witches, and Yellowhammer Day when youths would chase those lovely birds and kill them, believing they had drunk the devil’s blood. It was also Cattle Anointing Day when farmers anointed their cattle to keep away evil spirits.
Robin Hood and Maid Marian were regarded in some areas as Lord and Lady of the May, and so May 1 also became known as Robin Hood’s Day.
There were many other celebrations including the famous World Dock Pudding Championship at Hebden Bridge. Puddings are made from the leaves of young sweet dock along with nettles, onions and oatmeal; they are fried and served with potatoes. The championship determines whose dock puddings are the best.
One of my favourites is the annual Lying Contest Day held in the Lake District. Men compete to determine who can tell the biggest whopper and one story says a Bishop of Carlisle once tried to stop the fun. He told the audience he had never told a lie – and promptly won first prize.