May Day Traditions

May Garlands 1904
Dandelions were gathered to make wine on May 1st

In many Cambridgeshire villages girls carried prettily dressed dolls on May Day, showing them to people in return for money or sweets. This May-Dolling was continued in Swaffham Prior until c. 1960, but the collection of money was forbidden. A few of the doll-carriers in this village were, in 1950, still singing the song;

Sing a song of May-time
Sing a song of Spring.
Flowers are in their beauty,
Birds are on the wing.
May time, play time,
God has given us May time;
Thank him for His gifts of love,
Sing a song of Spring.

A Time to see Ghosts

In the Fens round Ely and Littleport it was believed, until the end of the 19th Century, that anyone who was out early on May Day morning would see the ghosts of all those who had been drowned in Fen rivers and dykes. Lightermen working on the barges which carried goods between King’s Lynn and Cambridge were highly superstitious, despite their reputation for rough behaviour. On May Day they always kept their boats tied up, probably because of this belief concerning the ghosts of the drowned.

Dandelions and Peat Fires

Fen housewives liked to gather dandelions for wine-making on May 1st, as these were thought to make the best wine; the flowers were also given to children to smell on this day to inhibit bed-wetting for the next twelve months. Women allowed the peat fire which had been burning all winter in the parlour or ‘best room’ to go out on May Day. The hearth was then freshly whitened and the room kept closed all summer except for some such event as a wedding, funeral or when the chapel preacher came to tea.

Starting a New Slate

In the Fenland inns, to the beginning of the 20th Century, May Day was recognised as the day on which labourers could renew their credit with the landlord; with haymaking and harvest to look forward to the men could expect to earn steady money. The slates, therefore, on which their drinking debts were recorded and which had been kept hidden by landlords all winter, were brought out again and hung on the taproom door.


See also