TRADITIONALLY, May Day means the start of summer and a good excuse for fun and games.
Before the Black Country became industrialised, our area was a collection of towns and villages, each community having its own Maypole for the customary May revels. So, if you live anywhere near a Maypole Street or Road, chances are the place was once the focus of May Day festivities.
Our forebears celebrated with Maypole and Garland dancing, rising long before dawn to gather bunches of Hawthorn blossom, or "May". The month was dedicated to "Flora" or "Maia", pagan goddesses of summer and fertility. So, young couples needed little excuse to stay out all night.
Young girls washed their faces in the May morning dew to guarantee a fair complexion. They also believed the first man they met afterwards would be their husband. This could have been something to do with the old May eve custom whereby young couples escaped the parental home to go "gathering May" – some gathering more than they bargained for!
Young girls also believed the May morning dew face wash would make them beautiful for the rest of the year, improving their chances of being crowned as the local May Queen.
The rest of the day was given over to the customary festivities. These varied from place to place, but decorations of flowers, greenery and colourful ribbons, were a common theme. If the village had a well or spring, May Day celebrations might also involve processions and well-dressing. The day included plenty of food and drink and general carousing. There would also be traditional pastimes, like Morris Dancing, archery, tug of war, sack racing and climbing to the top of the Maypole (greased, to make it more fun) to win prizes of hams or barrels of ale.
In 1665 an entry in Wolverhampton's Churchwarden's accounts shows that Black Country folk were happy to pay for their May Day festivities: "For ye gathering of ye May, Maypoles and Ringers, as was usual ... 15s 9d".
A Black Country rhyme also says:
Waken chaps and wenches gay,
An' off ter country ter gather May.
Local miners and iron workers liked to take a drop of rum along on their May morning jaunts to the countryside. There they'd buy milk from farmers to mix with their rum. The heady tipple was known as "whey". On their return the men decorated the pitheads and factories with blossoms and greenery.
For centuries a good time was had by all until Maypoles and May Day festivities were banned during Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth. The Puritans tried to ban nearly everything people enjoyed – even going as far as banning football and Christmas! So, with their pagan origins, the sinful Maypoles were doomed for the chop.
Prior to this Maypoles had been permanent structures, standing unadorned for the best part of the year, awaiting their colourful, May garlands. They also marked the spot reserved for other seasonal festivities. In 1660 when King Charles II was restored to the throne, the much loved Maypoles and May revels returned. A year later Londoners raised the tallest Maypole in the country on the Strand. Over 143 feet high it stood proudly until 1717, when it was chopped down, apparently to provide timber to support Sir Isaac Newton's new telescope.
During the 18th century raising Maypoles to celebrate royal anniversaries and other national occasions grew fashionable. Maypoles were raised in 1760 to celebrate the accession of George 111 and in 1887 and 1897, to celebrate Queen Victoria's Golden and Diamond Jubilees. Likewise our present Queen had Maypoles put up for her Silver and Golden Jubilees.
In Victorian times attitudes to public merrymaking had changed again, echoing the prudery of the Puritan Commonwealth days. As the Victorians covered up chair legs lest they offend sensitive souls, they also tried to clean up public pastimes – especially those enjoyed by ordinary working people.
No longer a raucous celebration, enjoyed by one and all, May Day revelry became a much watered down, genteel affair – mostly involving school children skipping round the Maypole, winding and plaiting ribbons into intricate patterns.
As England became increasingly industrialised, people in urban areas worked longer and longer hours. Consequently many of the centuries old holidays and their customs began to disappear. The right to paid holidays would not become law until the late 19th century. Working people had no choice but to abandon the old fun and games. So Maypoles were left to rot or pulled down for timber.
You only have to flick through an 'A to Z' to see how popular Maypoles were. I found several streets linked to the old, pagan tradition: Maypole Drive, Stourbridge; Maypole Fields and Maypole Hill, near Cradley Forge. There are plenty more, so we must have been a fun-loving lot in the olden days.
Today there are still a few Maypoles around if you know where to look. The original ones were single, wooden poles, painted white, or in red and white stripes like barbers' poles. In later times, many were painted red, white and blue. Modern ones are made of cast iron or plastic. Usually decorations are put on only for May Day or other events.
Sedgley and Wombourne are two Black Country communities with modern Maypoles. In Sedgley, courtesy of the Sedgley Morris Men, the old May Day traditions are still kept alive. Every May 1 the team welcome in the summer by dancing on top of Sedgley Beacon – at 4.30 am!
If you can't face such an early start you might like to bake some traditional cakes, using seasonal ingredients of eggs, lemon, curd cheese, dried fruits and almonds.
It's said that when King Henry VIII fell in love with Anne Boleyn he had his cooks bake these special cakes to serve to Anne and her ladies in waiting. Sadly, poor Anne lost her head. The cakes, however, live on. If you'd like to recreate a taste from the Tudor court here's a modern version.
May Maids of Honour
225g ready-made puff pastry
225g curd or cottage cheese
15g blanched almonds
15g butter at room temperature
1tsp lemon juice
Pre-heat oven to 190 C/ Gas 5. Using a dessert spoon, push cheese through a fine sieve into a large bowl. Beat the egg and add to the cheese. Add grated rind of lemon and one teaspoonful of the juice, along with the currants, sugar, chopped almonds and butter. Mix well.
Roll puff pastry to about 5mm thick and use a circular cutter to cut into 16 rounds. Place rounds into a shaped patty tin and half fill the rounds with the lemon, cheese and fruit filling. Bake for 20 – 30 minutes until risen and golden brown. Remove from tray and cool on a wire rack.
Enjoy – but don't lose your head!
What are your memories of old Black Country Easter customs? Write to us at 41 High Street, Cradley Heath, B64 5HL, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or log on to wwww.blackcountrybugle.co.uk