So soon after Easter this year, this weekend was another long weekend, the May Day bank holiday. For many of us, it’s just another day off, and a much-welcome break. However most people never ask why we celebrate 1st May. It isn’t a big religious holiday like most of the others, and it doesn’t seem to be a particularly significant date in the modern calendar. However, it was very important in the past. Whilst, these days, we don’t consider summer to start until 21st June, the old first day of summer was May Day.
Because of this, there were many celebrations and ceremonies which took place at this time of year, many of which still exist today. In some places, wells are dressed out in flowers, although most of the Derbyshire well dressings today take place later in the year, closer to what used to be known as Midsummer (as in the title of Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream) around 21st June. No-one really knows the purpose of well dressings, although it is believed to come from a Pagan tradition of making sacrifices to the water Gods to ensure a continued supply throughout the next year.
One tradition which is still observed on May Day is that of dancing the sun up. Before sunrise on 1st May (regardless of whether or not the bank holiday falls on that date or not), Morris sides all across country climb to high places and dance until the sun comes up. This is for two reasons. The first is captured in the traditional song which someone from the side I dance with always sings as the sun comes up: Hal an tow. The chorus contains the lines:
‘We were up
Long before the day-o
To welcome in the summer
To welcome in the May-o’.
The dances aren’t just to welcome in the summer, though. Traditionally, they have a much more important reason: if the Morris dancers don’t dance the sun up on 1st May, the sun won’t come up, and there won’t be any summer! Even though almost no-one believes this today, the tradition still continues (and, for as long as I’ve been dancing, there has always been at least some sun shining, even on the wettest May Days, so it obviously works).
Sadly, the number of sides who are able to maintain this tradition is on the decline. There are fewer people willing to dance the Morris, and as the members get older, they are less willing and able to dance, and with fewer dancers, it gets harder for the Morris sides to survive. However, despite the lack of a full side, there are still people who are trying to keep the tradition alive in Packington, in North West Leicestershire, just a few miles from the Erewash. Every year Packington Morris Men have welcomed the summer at the top of Breedon Hill. This weekend, the only difference will be that the dancing will be done by members of different sides, rather than entirely Packington men. And so the tradition survives. At least for a while longer.