May Day Celebrations
Originally May Day marked the Druidic feasts that celebrated the sacred union of the Goddess and the God Beltane. This is when the Celts marked the beginning of summer with great bonfires in honour of the sun. Later the May Day festival merged with the ancient Roman festival to Flora, the goddess of flowers and is celebrated around the same time.
THE MAY POLE
The Maypole was a falix symbol representing the male god Belatne. The soft colourful ribbons that entwine around the pole represented his Queen. The dance is their blissful union and all who wished to danced round the maypole decorated with flowers and ribbons. It wasn’t only the Maypole that had a prominent roll in the May Day festivities for in Tudor England it was customary for people of all classes to go out "a-maying" on the first of this month. During these celebrations our ancestors acted out the human version of the union of the god and goddess Beltane by spending the entire night making love in the fields to ensure the fertility of the land. They stayed out to greet the May sunrise and brought back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next morning. Children conceived at this time were considered especially blessed and were known as Merry-be-Gots. This method of ritually conveying the fertilising powers of nature into the community was greeted with horror by the Puritans who attempted to suppress these ‘greenwood marriages.’ They made Maypoles illegal in 1644AD and one angry Puritan wrote that men 'doe use commonly to runne into woodes in the night time, amongst maidens, to set bowes, in so muche, as I have hearde of tenne maidens whiche went to set May, and nine of them came home with childe.' Another Puritan complained that, of the girls who go into the woods, 'not the least one of them comes home again a virgin.' However, although these activities were forbidden by the puritans in their Roundhead Parliament, they were, however sanctioned at the Restoration under Charles II.
Garland Day has been celebrated in Castleton for hundreds of years with celebrations being held on Oak Apple Day the 29th May unless it falls on a Sunday in which case it is held on the Saturday. Originally it appears to have been a fertility rite performed by the Druids who worshipped on Castle Hill but today it has become mixed up with the restoration of King Charles II who escaped the Roundheads by hiding in an oak tree at Boscobel House in Shropshire. Today a ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ ride on horseback through the streets, the king’s head completely covered by a garland in the form of an inverted basket decorated with flowers. The procession is accompanied by a band and dancing and progress tends to be slow as all the pubs in the village are visited before the garland is finally hoisted to the top of St. Edmunds Church tower. After the procession there is Morris dancing and singing in the market place. Wikipedia comments, “It is widely believed that these ceremonies, which have now largely died out, are continuations of pre-Christian nature worship and can have little connection with the Restoration.” The strange heavy Garland Headdress shaped like a bell might be traced back by devotees of Druidism to the wicker cages used for the Druidical sacrifices, the season being close to the ancient Feast of Beltane (May Day) which was the most important festival in the Celtic calendar, heralding as it did the coming of summer and fertility. The church at Castleton perhaps dates from Celtic Christianity having been built, re-built, and added to, for although there is no mention of a church in the Domesday, the ninth century name of the Patron Saint suggests a strong claim to Saxon origin even if it was merely a private chapel for the two thanes who supposedly resided in a pre-Norman stronghold.
Sacred wells have been centers of worship and religious magic from the earliest times and are thought to date back to the Celts or even earlier perhaps stemming from the pagan tradition of worshiping the earth’s elements. In Scotland (Tullie Beltane) there is a Druid temple of eight upright stones. Some distance away is another temple, and near it a well still held in great veneration. A writer in The Gentleman's Magazine (1811) says. "On Beltane morning superstitious people go to this well and drink of it; then they make a procession round it nine times; after this they in like manner go round the temple. So deep-rooted is this heathenish superstition in the minds of many who reckon themselves good Protestants, that they will not neglect these rites even when Beltane falls on a Sabbath."
Another school of thought is that the Romans introduced the custom into Britain especially given the fact that a feature of many of these Dressings is the crowning of the 'Well Queen' which may be an echo of ancient fertility rights.
The tradition of well dressing continues to flourish in Derbyshire where the earliest record of well dressing took place in 1349 perhaps owing its resurgence to the Black Death of 1348-1349 when maybe one third of the population of England died due to the plague while other Derbyshire villages escaped untouched.
The arrival of Christianity was initially bad news for well-dressers. Water-worship was strictly forbidden -- so much so that Henry VIII's Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, oversaw the destruction of all the well dressing equipment his men could find. During Henry's reign, a number of crippled water-worshippers visiting the well at Buxton in Derbyshire in hopes of a cure had their crutches confiscated and destroyed.
During the Middle ages however, the ancient springs and wells lost their pagan associations and Christian Saints were generally substituted for that of the original water deity, leaving the people free once again to decorate their wells with flowers and greenery as long as they did it in a Christian fashion and as an act of thanksgiving to God for the gift of water. The decorated wells are still blessed by church officials, there is a carnival atmosphere, and a brass band often provides a little music to add to the sense of occasion. Famous British wells are those at Tissington, Derbyshire while of particular interest is the sacred spring of Coventina and her temple at Carrawburgh on the Roman Wall and the hot springs of the goddess Sulis at Bath.
Mummers plays were performed from the mediaeval period into the modern era. The cast of characters consisting of Maid Marian, Robin Hood, Saint Nicholas, chimney sweeps, and milkmaids. The inclusion of these people symbolise the victory of good over evil expressed in the combat of a hero and villain where the vanquished, in this case the Summer Queen, triumphs over the Winter Queen played out by two troupes of dancers who meet to enact a ceremonial battle. The Winter Queen was played by a man dressed as an old woman, while the May Queen was portrayed by a young woman. Often there was a procession with the Jack in the Green followed by the ritual marriage of the King and Queen of May. It is unclear how Maid Marian became associated with Robin Hood or what prompted their inclusion into the May Games except it may be a case of every ‘king’ needing his ‘queen’ and who better than the shepherdess Maid Marion who appeared alongside the shepherd Robin in the popular French romantic operetta written by Adam de la Halle called Le Jeu de Robin et Marion. The musical play about a shepherdess and her shepherd lover named Marion and Robin (not Robin Hood) was usually performed during May and early June, most commonly around Whitsun may have been absorbed into the May Games and it has been suggested that Robin Hood became associated with the May Games through his association with the forest and his skill as an archer and hunter but what we do know is that an important part of the May Day festivities is the crowning of the May Queen when the fairest maid of the village was crowned with flowers as Queen of the May. She held sway for one day over her court who consisted of Morris Dancers, Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, Little John and all the merry men along with the villagers and townspeople. No doubt a good time was had by all as is customary in our ‘modern’ age when Garland Day is celebrated at Castleton the same as in days gone by. MORRIS MEN
The Morris Dance has its connections in pagan festivals from across Europe and as far away as the Middle East, India, and parts of Central and South America, Austria, the Mediterranean, Latin America, and Romania. The name “Morris” comes from the word “morisco," meaning "Moorish." It was introduced into England by Eleanor of Castile, queen of Edward I. In Henry VIII reign it formed an essential part of most rustic and parochial festivities. When later it became associated with the May Games the dancers frequently represented characters from the Robin Hood legend, especially Maid Marian and Friar Tuck. A common feature is that the dancers attend the needs of a pagan god who celebrates his revival after death and the dances are supposed to have magical power and bring good luck wherever they perform. Sometimes there is a May Day procession including a man-horse, where the central figure, "Oss Oss," is a witch doctor disguised as a horse and wearing a medicine mask. The dancers are again attendants who sing the May Day song, beat drums, and in turn act the horse or dance. Dances include Bean Setting, Leap Frog, and Laudanum Bunches. Solo Morris dances are called Morris jigs; an example being the Shepherds' Hey. No Morris dance festival is complete without a sword dance in which the dancers weave their swords into intricate patterns.