Down through the centuries ‘May Day’ has always been a significant day in the calendar with celebrations held in most of the Dartmoor towns and villages. The roots of May Day can be found deep into the pagan beliefs in the form of Beltane which occurs from the 30th of April to the 1st of May. Beltane is a Celtic word which means ‘fires of Bel’ (Bel was a Celtic deity). It is a fire festival that celebrates of the coming of summer and the fertility of the coming year. Celtic festivals often tied in with the needs of the community. In spring time, at the beginning of the farming calendar, everybody would be hoping for a fruitful year for their families and fields. Beltane was once a time in which one’s cattle were honoured in rituals of protection, purification, and fertility. It was at this time when the cattle were driven to their high pastures for the summer months. The Celts knew that seasonal transitions were times of heightened supernatural strength, even danger. Beltane and Samhain were the year’s two great fire festivals — they divided the year in half and marked the time when the portals between the spiritual and human worlds were at their most vulnerable. In respecting such powers, the celebrations called for holy fires, kindled from the trees most revered by the Celts – among these were rowan, birch, apple, oak, hawthorn, holly, and alder. Such magical woods were believed to be “specialists” in protecting and purifying people and animals from disease and infertility. Beltane’s fires welcomed the sun’s return and therefore had specially focused powers of renewal. That is why the Celts at Beltane drove their treasured herds and flocks along a narrow pathway between two banks of burning wood piles, through the holy, incense-like smoke, asking for mighty blessings upon the animals and themselves. In this light there was also a tradition on Dartmoor for the farmers to light a fire consisting of straw placed on a pile of stones. This would then be set alight and once the flames had died down the cattle would be driven through the smoking embers. This would ensure that the animals would be disease free and productive throughout the following year.
Most of the customs centre around flowers, greenery and at one time the ‘hobby-horse’, probably the most pagan of the May Day symbols. Preparations for May Day usually involved the frenetic collection of flowers and greenery. The evening of the 30th of April would see young girls going to houses with gardens and asking for flowers for the ‘May Doll’ which was a kind of blackmail because if the flowers were not forthcoming they were usually pinched later that night. Once enough flowers had been collected a ‘May Doll’ was made and placed in a decorated, lidded box. The 1st of May customs began early with the sounding of horns to herald the coming of summer, these horns would then be blown throughout the day. Some girls would be up early to wash in the morning dew for it was said that bathing in May dew made a girl more beautiful. Groups of boys and girls would take the ‘May Doll’ from house to house. The girls would carry the doll and the boys would carry short, flower decked poles with a hoop on the end. At each house the owners would be asked, “Please to see a May-Doll,” if they said yes a penny was paid and the lid of the decorated box would be lifted to reveal the May Doll lying on a bed of flowers. One recorded rhyme that would be recited whilst taking the May Doll around was:
“Round the Maypole, trit, trit, trot;
See what maypole we have got;
Fine and Gay,
Happy is our New May-day.
Good morning, merry gentlefolks!
We wish you a happy May;
We come to show you our May garland,
Because ’tis the first of May.
Come kiss my face,
And smell my mace,
And give the little children
Later in the day the whole town or village would then process through the streets which would have been decorated with flowers and greenery. In earlier days the procession would be led by a ‘hobby-horse’ which was a man dressed up to resemble a horse. With him would be his ‘guard’ of men who would collect money from the bystanders. In some places it was considered good luck to have the hobby-horse come into your home whilst in others the hobby was seen as a fearsome creature that would chase people.
The people would then gather around the ‘May Pole’ which over the centuries has dramatically reduced in size. Originally some of the ‘poles’ were in fact entire tree trunks that had been felled and dragged to the traditional site with great ceremony. The whole tree would then be decked with floral adornments and the ‘pole’ would serve as the central focus for the ensuing celebrations. In some of the larger places the May Pole would be a permanent fixture and would be decorated each year. The origins of the May Pole are uncertain but it was known that the Saxons would worship at a huge pole called ‘Irminsul‘ which meant an ‘enormous pillar’. It is therefore possible that this is how the custom arrived on our shores. By the late 1500’s the Puritans considered that the May Pole was associated with paganism and immorality. In 1583 Phillip Stubbes wrote the ‘Anatomie of Abuses’ and in it he gives his opinion of the May Day ceremonies albeit not on Dartmoor: “…all the yung men and maides, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves, hils, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall… But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration. They have twentie or fortie yoke of oxen, every yoke having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns and these oxen drawe home this May-pole (this stinking Idol, rather) which is covered all over with floures and hearbs, bound round with strings from the top to the bottom, and sometime painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion… and then fall they to daunce about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of idols… I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravitie and reputation that, over fortie, three-score, or a hundred maides going to the wood over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned againe undefiled.” The Puritans continued their protests and in 1644 Parliament decreed that; “… the prophanation of the Lord’s Day by May-poles (a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness) … all and singular May-poles that are and shall be erected, shall be taken down and removed by the constables, bossholders, tithing -men, petty constables, and church-wardens of the parishes where the same be, and that no May-pole be here-after set up, erected, or suffered to be set up within this kingdom of England or dominion of Wales; the said officers to be fined five shillings weekly till the said May-pole be taken down.” It was not until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that the May Day celebrations were allowed to resume. They did not ever regain their popularity and to some extent many of the customs and celebrations were moved over to the new, popular event of Oak-apple Day which occurred at the end of May. The decline continued up to the present day and although May-poles can be seen today the celebrations pale into insignificance to former days. Since the introduction of the May Day bank holiday there has been a marked increase in the number of village and town celebrations with the revival of many of the May fairs.
The May-pole is up, Now give me the cup; I'll drink to the garlands around it; But first unto those Whose hands did compose The glory of flowers that crown'd it.
A health to my girls, Whose husbands may earls Or lords be, granting my wishes, And when that ye wed To the bridal bed, Then multiply all, like to fishes.
On Dartmoor there were some variations on the May-pole theme, in the Tavistock area a large pyramid of foliation and flowers would be built. Inside this a man was concealed and he would dance around the main procession. He was called ‘Jack-in-the-bush’ and it is believed this figure dates back to the ancient customs and beliefs of the ‘Green Man‘. In Moretonhampstead and possibly Meavy the villagers would centre their May Day celebrations around the ‘Dancing Tree‘, which was an adaptation of the Maypole traditions.
Another important element of the May Day celebrations was that of the ‘May Queen’. At one time the May Queen was usually chosen for her popularity or beauty although in this non-competitive age she is elected for more mundane reasons. The ‘Queen’ was normally crowned at a ceremony focused around the May-pole and then a procession around the town, village or parish would take place. Today, probably the most famous May Queen celebrations can be found at Lustleigh. Here the May Day traditions had lapsed until in 1905 Cecil Torr revived them. They have been held on the first Saturday in May ever since and initially the ‘crowning’ took place on a hillside above Wreyland. Here there is a huge granite boulder where the ceremony took place, the boulder has inscribed upon it the names of all the May Queens up to 1940. Due to the Second World War the celebrations were put on hold until 1954 when they were resumed again. Then the whole event was moved to the Town Orchard where the Queen’s throne was erected on what became known as the May Day Rock. Like its predecessor this rock has the names of the all the May Queens inscribed on it from 1954 to 2000. In the May of 2000 a new throne was unveiled at the May Day celebrations. The throne was cut from granite from the nearby Blackingstone Quarry, it was designed by Doug Cooper and carved by Warren Pappas, on it is inscribed ‘MM’. Unfortunately, due to Covid and the restrictions Lustleigh’s May Day celebrations were cancelled in 2020 and 2021. But once again the event has risen again today the celebrations take very much the same format as that in 1937. This year (2022) the event took place on Saturday the 7th of May. This day was another first for the event as due to the two cancelled events in 2020/1 three May Queens were crowned in order to effect a continuation of the tradition.
The crowning celebration begins early in the morning when the ladies of the village make a grand canopy of flowers. Then early in the afternoon the Queen is escorted by four bearers who carry the canopy and a procession is led around the village. The Queen’s crown of fresh flowers is carried alongside the retinue. The procession then stops at the church steps where the queen is blessed by the rector and the village children sing songs. The May Queen is then escorted to ‘The Orchard’ where she is crowned on the May Day Rock and then the villagers dance around the May-pole. During the afternoon teas are served, brass bands play and Morris Dancers ‘clog’ their jigs and dances.
Lustleigh May Queen on the May Day Rock.
Photograph – The Lustleigh Society.
May guze chicks’ or ‘May goslings’ were another part of May Day, these were people who had been sent on ‘fools errands’ only to return without for example of ‘bag of nails’ or ‘a long weight’. It was a kind of April Fool’s trick played on May Day. In some areas, young girls having first bathed in the May dew would return home with branches of hawthorn which would be hung over the door to protect the household from the spells of witches and the evil eye. An old May Day custom at Holne was the Ram Feast or Ram Roasting, this was where the youngsters of the village would assemble before sunrise at the Play Field. From here they would walk up to the moor and catch a ram lamb which was then taken back to the field. Here it was tied to a menhir and slaughtered after which it was put on a spit and roasted. At mid-day the lamb was cut up and distributed to the villagers who believed that by eating the meat they would secure good luck for the rest of the year. Clearly the roots of this ritual are seated deep in pagan times when sacrifices were made to the gods.
The 2nd of May was known as ‘ducking day’ and this was when in early times the village gossip or scold was taken to the pond and given a seat on the ducking stood. Latterly the children of the village or town extended the ‘duckings’ to anybody that got within range of whatever they were carrying water in. The 3rd of May was ‘nettle day’ which was when the children would gather nice long stinging nettles and thrash each other unmercifully. This day was also known as kissing day when the older children would go begging kisses from anyone whom they fancied.