May Day 2017 festivities in Sussex

Beltane Fire Festival (Photo by James Ratchford)

Beltane Fire Festival (Photo by James Ratchford) - Credit: Archant

The old traditions of celebrating the fertility of spring are alive and well in Sussex. Hazel Sillver takes a look at the ancient festival of Beltane and the modern-day events that preserve it.

Blossom a-burst in the hedgerows, the woods scented with garlic and bluebells, and the land dressed in its fresh green coat. May is the season of abundance when growth is at its peak, the countryside buzzes with life, and summer is just around the corner.

Our ancestors marked this moment with a festival on 1 May. Known as Beltane, or May Day, it was a celebration of the fertility of spring and the coming of summer, with ritual, dancing and feasts. Many of these traditions survive today, and in recent years have seen a surge in popularity. It seems we instinctively feel the need to mark our connection to the seasons of nature, as our ancestors did.

In times gone by, entire villages and towns would be drenched in flowers and leaves on May Eve – families would plunder the hedgerows, fields and woods for armfuls of buttercups, cowslips, cherry blossom and cranesbill, and then decorate the house with them. At dawn on May Day, it was customary for women to rub their faces with the morning dew, in the belief it would endow them with eternal youth. Neighbours left ‘May baskets’ of flowers and sweets upon one another’s doorsteps. And later in the day, there would be dancing around the maypole, and the May Queen would be crowned with a garland of flowers.

Those traditions are captured by Laurie Lee in his essay The English Spring: “The month of May in England, so long awaited, is the flower-studded crown of spring, the final raising of the curtain on all we’d been promised, the shimmering threshold to the mansions of summer.” He recalls the 1 May customs of his village, Slad in Gloucestershire, during his childhood in the 1920s: going ‘a-Maying’ with his friends, turning telephone poles into May Poles, dancing to the sound of a fiddle, and his sisters rubbing their cheeks with dew from the grass at dawn.

Beltane is the anglicised name for the Gaelic May Day festival. The word derives from the Celtic belo-te(p)nia, which means ‘bright fire’. To protect their cattle from disease our ancestors would make two fires with Druid incantations and drive the herd between them; over time, this tradition stretched to people leaping over fires on 1 May, believing the flames and smoke to have protective powers.

The focus on flowers of course reflects the festival’s celebration of springtime bounty, but it also harks back to Floralia, the Roman festival of the flower goddess Flora, which was held on 27 April.

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In many places, the heart of the flower worship was the May bush. This would be a blossom tree or bush, either in people’s gardens or somewhere in the village. Usually a hawthorn (the flower of May), it was decorated with shells, flowers and ribbons.

As Europe adopted Christianity, the floral traditions were woven into its calendar: for example Mary’s head was often crowned with flowers on May Day, and this continues in some churches.

Despite the old May customs largely falling out of favour in the last century, in some places they endured. In parts of Ireland, for instance, the Beltane fires were never put out, and the old ways persisted. In Padstow in Cornwall revellers continued to dance with the fertility Obby-Oss (Hobby Horse) along streets decked with springtime greenery.

Today there are many places in the UK reviving their old May festivities, or creating new ones. Here in Sussex we have many wonderful celebrations to enjoy. In Hastings, the Jack-in-the-Green festival remembers the chimney sweeps of the 18th century who garbed themselves with so much greenery on May Day that they became dubbed Jack-in-the-Green.

And there is morris dancing galore. “Like most areas in England, morris dancing in Sussex is fairly modern, and dates from the revival of morris and folk dancing from the early 20th century,” says historian Sean Goddard, who dances with the Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men. “There are records of morris dancing in the 15th century in Rye and Tarring. Most of the morris dancing that people see today originates from other parts of England – Sussex only has one morris dance, called Over the Sticks, which originated in Chithurst.”

Many May festivities across Sussex include a good old maypole dance. Historians argue over the significance of this mysterious ritual. Some believe that dancing around a pole is a fertility rite, while others attest the interweaving of the ribbons to symbolise nature’s synergistic quality.

In today’s fast-moving, technologically advanced world it’s easy to feel cut off from nature, and from our ancestors. Performing the old rituals of May is a way to return to those roots. As Laurie Lee eulogises: “The long English spring, rising to its peak of May, is still a conquering power in our lives. In spite of rubber, concrete and insulations of asphalt, we are not cut off from it yet. Its revolution each year transforms the face of our world, changes the sky, shakes our very roots.”


Morris Dancing Taking Place in May

Crowborough - The Ashdown Forest Morris Men will dance at the Crowborough Fete as well as various pubs – check their website for details.

Clapham, near Worthing - The Chanctonbury Ring Morris Men will be dancing at the Coach & Horses’ May Day celebrations at 2pm; the pub is just off the A27 (BN13 3UA).

Maplehurst, near Horsham - The ladies of the Magog Morris and the Broadwood Morris Men will dance at the White Horse in Maplehurst at 7.30pm.

Shoreham - Sompting Village Morris troupe will be dancing on East Street in Shoreham at 7am.

Hassocks - The men and women of Ditchling Morris will dance at 12.30pm at the South Downs Nurseries, Hassocks.

Lewes - Garland Day in Lewes includes dancing at the castle at 10.15am by the Knots of May troupe and the Long Man Morris Men, and a procession down the high street at 11am.

Winchelsea and Rye - The Cinque Port Morris Men will bring in May by dancing at Winchelsea Church at 6.45am, and Rye Town Hall at 10.30am.

Brighton - The Brighton Morris Men and the Cuckoo’s Nest Women’s Morris will celebrate May Eve on 30 April with dancing at the Sir Charles Napier pub, and will dance at Hollingbury Camp on 1 May.

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