J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Monday, May 01, 2023

Shifting May Day

On 11 Feb 1754, the Boston Evening-Post ran a curious news item from London:
Oct. 19. They write from Kinderton, near Middlewych, Cheshire, that the inhabitants observed the feast of Old St. Michael, and kept their wake on that day notwithstanding the late Alteration of the stile, as they did, in several parts of Oxfordshire, Old May Day, and erected may poles on the occasion; which is the more to be wondered at, considering the undue influence in this last county.
Michaelmas was 29 September, but “the feast of Old St. Michael” was 10 October, or what the date of Michaelmas was under the Julian calendar that Britain had dropped a couple of years before.

Likewise, May Day is the first of May, but “Old May Day” was 12 May.

Back in July, the Gentleman’s Magazine ran a long poem titled “The Tears of Old May-Day,” personifying the old holiday as saying:
Ah me! for now a younger rival claims
My ravish’d honours, and to her belong
My choral dances, and victorious games,
To her my garlands and triumphal song.
That new May Day on the first had been brought on “By Europe’s laws, and senates’ stern command,” this poem said. It sniffed that 1 May was “Pale, immature,” not verdant and warm enough for a true celebration of spring.

However, the fact that the Oxfordshire celebration of Old May Day in 1754 was newsworthy shows how the 1 May date was taking hold, particularly in London.

According to British newspaper reports quoted by Joanne Major at All Things Georgian, in 1772 the village of Quarndon in Leicestershire still held its maypole ceremony on Old May Day, but three years later the Morning Chronicle confirmed that “Jack of the Green” had made his appearance in the capital on 1 May (apparently the first printed mention of that May Day icon).

Typical New Englanders seem to have viewed any May Day tradition as outdated and outlandish, a pagan or papist holdover. Nevertheless, the fact that the Fleet family was able to reprint that first item in the Boston Evening-Post shows they expected their readers to understand what holidays it referred to.

No comments: