May festivals: May Day and the Green Man

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By Karen Hartwriter

Article originally published on 18th April 2013

Explore May Day traditions, including the Green Man, the Spirit of the Forest.

May Day is the first day of May. It is an ancient celebration whose roots lie in Pagan customs. Written references referring to the ‘bringing-in of May’ – the custom of gathering wild flowers and green boughs, date back as far as 1240, although the tradition of dancing around a maypole is not referenced until the 14th century.

Today, May Day celebrations can be seen across the country, especially in villages, with traditions including Morris dancing, the crowning of the May Queen and an appearance by the Green Man – a figure decked in green foliage whose presence unites many ancient traditions as the embodiment of the spirit of nature.

Other localised traditions include Rochester’s festival of chimney sweeps (1 May historically being the one day in the year they didn’t have to work), while Derbyshire is famous for its ‘well dressing’ tradition of decorating or ‘dressing’ their wells with flowers.

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