Hertfordshire has a long tradition of celebrating May Day – 1 May – the greatest secular festival of the year, marking the fertility of spring and looking forward to summer. While many of the old customs that were followed each year in the villages and towns of the county had their own local variations, most activities were typical of those that were pursued throughout the country as a whole. It was a day of fun, particularly for the children, with music, dancing, costumed characters and plenty of revelry.
The traditional celebrations started very early in the morning, before dawn, when groups of young people, usually accompanied by musicians playing instruments such as the pipe and tabor, would gather to collect branches of may (hawthorn) from local woodlands. While they did this they would sing the Mayers’ Song, which was one of the best-known old Hertfordshire carols. There were many different versions of this song throughout the county, each one sung to a different tune. Therfield’s version, for example, had 18 verses, whereas in Hitchin they sang a shorter song, as follows:
Remember us poor Mayers all,
And thus we do begin
To lead our lives in righteousness,
Or else we die in sin.
We have been rambling all this night,
And almost all this day;
And now returned back again,
We have brought you a branch of may.
A branch of may we have brought you
And at your door it stands;
It is but a sprout, but it’s well budded out,
By the work of our Lord’s hands.
The hedges and trees they are so green,
As green as any leek;
Our heavenly Father he watered them
With his heavenly dew so sweet.
The heavenly gates are open wide,
Our paths are beaten plain;
And if a man be not too far gone,
He may return again.
The life of man is but a span,
It flourishes like a flower;
We are here to-day, and gone to-morrow,
And we are dead in an hour.
The moon shines bright, and the stars give a light,
A little before it is day;
So God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a joyful May!
As the sun rose the mayers would return to their towns and villages and fix the boughs of may to the doors of ‘respectable’ houses, shops and cottages. The larger the branch the more respectable the house – or, more specifically, the more honour was brought to the servants of that house. If, however, any servant had given offence during the year, they would find a branch of elder and a bunch of nettles attached to the door instead of a branch of may – a sign of great disgrace, which would attract jeers from all their rivals.
Hitchin, Kelshall, Sandon, Therfield and Hare Street were just some of the towns and villages in Hertfordshire where this custom was followed, although each place would have its own slightly different version of it.
Maypole and Morris dancing
One of the best-known May Day activities was dancing around a maypole. Hertfordshire maypoles were particularly impressive, it seems, being ‘as high as the mast of a vessel of a hundred tons, painted often in a diagonal of spiral pattern from bottom to top in yellow and black, or often in vertical stripes of red, white and blue’. They would also be decorated with colourful ribbons and garlands of flowers. Although occasionally maypoles still feature in village May Day celebrations today, most of Hertfordshire’s original maypoles have disappeared over the years.
Morris dancing was also popular, perhaps the one tradition that has stood the test of time most successfully as it is often still performed at village events in Hertfordshire as well as elsewhere in the country. The tradition dates back to the 15th century and the style of dance is based on rhythmical steps and a series of set figures. Participants typically wear colourful costumes, sashes, neckerchiefs, straw hats, wooden clogs and bells attached to their shins, and carry sticks, swords and handkerchiefs.
The festival of the chimney sweeps
May Day was also marked in some areas by the festival of the chimney sweeps. With their soot-blackened faces they would wander around the towns and villages asking for money and performing Morris dances. In Ware they would also perform street pageants and would be accompanied by a character known as the Jack-of-the-Green, described as ‘a locomotive mass of foliage with his black face shining through an aperture in the leaves’, as well as a clown, a couple of climbing boys, and a drummer who also played the pan pipes.
May Lords and Ladies
The custom of crowning a May Queen is a familiar one and still often takes place today, but in Baldock they used to celebrate the May Lord and Lady. Two effigies would be created out of rags, canvas, straw and other similar materials (rather like Guy Fawkes figures), and these would be dressed in donated clothes from friends and neighbours. One account in William Hone’s Yearbook of 1832 tells us that the Lady would wear a best gown and an ‘apron, kerchief and mob cap’, while the Lord would wear a ‘nutmeg coat, posied waistcoat, leather breeches, speckled stockings and half boots’, as well as a ‘second-hand flaxen-coloured wig.’
Several pairs of May Lords and Ladies would be made and on the morning of May Day each couple would be seated on chairs outside the cottages in the town and decorated with may flowers. A table would be placed in front of them and on this would be a ‘mug of ale, a drinking horn, a pipe, a pair of spectacles and perhaps a newspaper’. A hat would be left out to collect contributions from suitably impressed passers-by.
During the 19th and the early part of the 20th century several of the old May Day traditions specifically involved children. In places such as Baldock, Letchworth, Hoddesdon, Wyddial, Potten End, Watford and South Mimms young girls would dress in white with coloured sashes and carry dolls, called May Babies, from door to door in the hope of being given money in exchange for singing the Mayers’ Song.
Another activity that they enjoyed was going a-garlanding. Again dressed in white costumes, the children would first make their garlands and then carry them around the village houses, singing as they went. The nature of the garlands varied from place to place: in Hatfield, for example, they were made of hawthorn or blackthorn blossom, whereas in Watford and King’s Langley they consisted of spring flowers, often bluebells and primroses, which would be tied with ribbon and include a branch of may, or hawthorn.
Other May Day attractions
There were plenty of other activities and attractions to keep everyone entertained. Dancing and general merriment continued throughout the day and there would be archery contests and other games on the village greens. Some places would put on plays – Hexton, for example, was known for its performances of plays about Robin Hood and Little John – and in all the towns and villages the day would be brought to a joyous end with bonfires.
St Ippolyts Mayers Song sung by Cissi Pratt (1899-1987) in the 1970s