Written by Christina Oakley Harrington.
May Day has been enjoyed again in London, even in the rough and un-gentrified areas like my beloved Walworth Road. England has always loved its Fire Festivals, even that lasted decades, not centuries. Nearly died out, but coming back, thanks to a revival of attention. As for me, I remembered to wear a green tee shirt, the ballad in my head bobbing semi-tunelessly is my personal favourite song of the holiday...
"The proud lady rode into the wood
And there in her way, the Wicked One stood.
'Now welcome proud lady, lie down, lie down,
And I will give you a gay green gown." (Gay Green Gown)
The 'green gown' refers to the grass stains she'll get from her roll on the woodland floor, a bit of Elizabethan slang... Well, give me a green gown, I say. May Day is a get-out-of-jail card, going back as far as the Middle Ages. Lasses and lads went out to the woods to gather up hawthorn blossom, the mayflower, and out there one would have a little frolic, a little roll about under the bowers. Many a green gown, and many a pregnancy came from this day. And all forgiven, even by the sternest old folk.
The four old British fire festivals dates are May Day, Halloween, Lammas and Imbolc. They have seen a glorious revival in the past 20 years, in ways that both delight and astonish. Captured vividly by photographer Sara Hannant, their living power is palpable (Mummers, Maypoles and Milkmaids). The first witches of the pagan revival, back in the 1950s, first started writing about the archetypal power and mythic relevance of these old holidays. Not only do they resonate with folkloric quaintness of the agricultural cycle, they argued, they do something meaningful: they speak to the most potent experiences of the human condition. Sex and death, hope and sacrifice.
And I for one feel they do. People in the British Isles are embracing their pagan heritage more openly than ever before. Those whose religion is Paganism (the seventh largest religion in the UK) mark the fire festivals as holy days. I am pagan, and marked the day with a public ceremony for fellow pagans in a London hall, with my friends in a mummers play both comical and spiritual. And I marked it privately, with candle and prayer and mayflowers on the altar, in my study at home. And with friends in the woods in an old cottage at the weekend, under the trees, and paying homage to the old gods of the land who bring love and fertility.
But the old holidays, the fire festivals, are also reviving among the non-religious. May Day's Celtic name is Beltane and a great Beltane festival in Edinburgh has become a national attraction, perhaps a British answer to Burning Man, attracting thousands of face-painted, fire-throwing acrobatic performers. May Day festivities are thriving in Hastings and Enfield and Rochester and small towns. Here in my own London, the rough and ready neighbourhood of Deptford has revived its old Jack-in-the Green parade. My pagan pal Ian has carried the large leaf-coloured giant through the streets - the 'Deptford Jack'. Though he's pagan, most in the crowd aren't - it's mostly good old agnostics amongst the local residents buying rounds of drinks to honour the occasion.
It's as it should be. May Day, like all the fire festivals, belongs to everyone - just as the seasons do. For some it goes hand in hand with the nu-folk music, with artisan bread, with microbreweries. For others it's part of the gentle retro world of the village fete, the church bake sale, and doing a spot of gardening for the elderly neighbour at number seven. And we Brits have long gone out in summer to get muddy in a semi-spiritual way, with our love of music festivals: from the sodden fields of Glastonbury and the crowning sunrise at Stonehenge. For lots of us, from varying generations and various demographic identities, the old fire festivals still make sense.
I revel in the return of the silly costumes and loud singing, the beer and stumbling dances, for the green dresses and green men are back all across this land. Funny, it's happening as people of all political stripes fight to keep back the tarmac and fight developers off the last remnants of our ancient woodlands and Green Belt spaces.
May Day morning I went out to get my weekly groceries from the vendors in East Street Market, folk from generations of hardcore working class traders. This is a poor neighbourhood; life is hard here down the Walworth Road in the sixth year of economic recession. But I heard Bob Marley blasting out of an open window and I saw the battered maypole in the churchyard. I had my lucky green tee shirt on. Everything was here in this corner of South London, as it is everywhere: sex and death, hope and sacrifice. And it was all good, just for the day - May Day.
So whoever you are, I hope you got a green gown, sang a song, smelt the flowers, listened out for a strain of music that wafted your way as if by chance. The acts of love and pleasure are the rites of spring.
Christina Oakley Harrington is the founder of Treadwell's Bookshop, Bloomsbury, London. She is pagan by spiritual inclination and a South London resident since 2012. Treadwell's will be at Wilderness Festival offering a series of experiential workshops around the theme of natural and wild magic, as well as short storytellings from folk legend and myth.
Photo by Claudia Gabriela Marques Vieira.
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See the highlights from last year below...