These days it seems that time off work for days like Easter and the old-fashioned Whitsuntide, Bank Holidays and so on, are just that... days off work with no thought given as to why it is so, and what used to happen on those days. As someone who spent ten years writing about local and social history, I have a lovely collection of books old and new, about English Festivals, and one of the joys of writing about them was the excuse it gave me to browse around secondhand bookshops.
One of my favourites that I discovered was the 'wayzgoose', a traditional annual outing for printers. It is believed to date from the 17th century and originally referred to a picnic or outing for the workmen of a printing house, given by the master printer, and was always held around the feast day of Saint Bartholomew, August 24th. He was one of the Twelve Apostles and popular as a patron saint, for within his patronage he has bookbinders, cobblers, leather workers, plasterers and trappers. The wayzgoose itself usually consisted of a picnic meal, taken into the country, and there would be amusements, games and so on, with speeches and toasts after the meal. Although the word seems to have gone out of common usage in this country, it was still used in Canada in the 1990s to describe a printers art fair held at an art gallery in Ontario.
May Day is almost upon us, and up and down the country there will be various celebrations planned, including a weekend of family orientated events in St. Neot's in Cambridgeshire; in the Cotswolds, at Blockley, a new May Pole will be the focus of attention in their celebrations; in Norwich a family fun day is being held by three Norfolk churches and at the Museum of Norfolk Life near Dereham, a May Day Food Fair is planned.
Traditionally speaking, May Day is seen as the first day of Summer, and for centuries it was the custom for men and women, in town and country, to go a-Maying on this day... when young men and women took themselves off to the woods to gather garlands and boughs of flowers which they used to adorn cottage doors and windows at sunrise, and the rest of the day was given over to festivities, the highlight of which was the crowning of the May Queen.
Another tradition was the erecting of the Maypole, and the most famous was the one erected in the Strand, which was over 130 feet high and which stood for over fifty years. Usually the Maypole would be painted and carried in procession with a group of musicians playing ahead of it. It was erected on the village green or in a town market place, decked with flowers and the focal point for the May Day celebrations.
Morris Dancing was at its height in the 16th century, and still exists in many parts of the country today. Originally it made its debut on May Day, then no more was seen until Whitsuntide, after which it continued throughout the summer, sometimes even appearing at Christmastime along with the mummers. The roots of Morris dancing go back a long way, to celebrate the rebirth of spring, ensure good harvests, fertility of flocks, all of this connected with Northern Europe where it is believed to have originated before being brought over to this country. Traditionally a team of people included dancers and other characters, such as The Fool, and the Hobby Horse, some of which took part in the dance, whilst others didn't. But the form we usually see here, of non-traditional Morris dancers, began in 1911 when the English Folk Dance Society was formed, and twenty years later, a federation of Morris Clubs known as the Morris Ring came into being.
May Day is also known as BELTANE, the Celtic festival of the beginning of Summer, and before sunrise you should gather the 'May', which can be hawthorn blossom or rowan preferably, (there are some forms of greenery and plant life which are said to be insulting, 'gorse for the whores' for example!) and then left at a friend's door to bring them luck.
May, according to books on old traditions and beliefs, is also the best month for making your butter, is the month when bees swarm, leaving their hives to make new colonies, when kittens born turn into melancholy adult cats; it is the month said to be unlucky for marrying but a good month for making 'prognostications from the hands', when you should beware of shrews (the scurrying about vermin type, not pinch-faced old crones!) and make your Whitsun cheesecakes. Now not a lot of people know that!