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its top being the signal for a meeting of the people when they saw cause for punishing or deposing their governors. But I must return to more modern times.
In some parts of the country the young men, rising earlier than the earliest maidens, were away to the woods with the following song:
“Come, lads, with your bills,
To the woods we 'll away,
“We 'll bring our load home,
As we've oft done before,
Another English practice on the morning of May-day was the washing one's face in newly-fallen dew. So late as the ad day of May, 1791, the London “Morning Post” contained the following paragraph: “According to annual and superstitious custom, a number of persons went into the fields yesterday, and bathed their faces with dew on the grass, under the idea that it would render them beautiful.” Samuel Pepys, a noted gentleman of Charles the Second's time, whose quaint diary many of our young folks will doubtless read some day, has the following note of the custom : “My wife away down to Woolwich, in order to a little ayre, and to lie there, and so to gather May-dew to-morrow morning, which Mrs. Turner has told her is the only thing to wash her face with.” He adds, - the sinner, — “I am contented with it”; and gives the reason for his contentment immediately thereafter : “I by water to Fox-hall, and there walked in Spring-garden; and it is very pleasant and cheap going thither, for a man may go to spend what he will or nothing - all as one: but to hear the nightingale and other birds ; and here a fiddler, and there a harp, and here a laughing, and there fine people walking, is mighty diverting,” says honest Mr. Pepys, whose wife is gone to Woolwich, “in order to a little ayre, and to gather May-dew.”
After the May-pole was fairly raised and decorated, when green bowers had been erected for the use of the Lord and Lady of the May, came the merry dances, the maskings and mummings peculiar to the day. In many places the nobles and gentry graced the festivities with their presence, and grotesque pantomime added to the enjoyment of the villagers. On these occasions there were Robin Hood and Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, Much the Miller's Son, Little John, Will Scarlet, and all the other famous characters of merry Sherwood. Maid Marian was often splendidly attired, as the following ancient chronicle of one of these maskings setteth forth:
“She was habited in a watchet-colored tunic reaching to the ground; over which she wore a white linen rochet with loose sleeves, fringed with silver and very neatly plaited; her girdle was of silver baudekin, fastened with a double bow on the left side ; her long flaxen hair was divided into many ringlets, and flowed upon her shoulders; the top part of her head was covered with a network caul of gold, upon which was placed a garland of silver, ornamented with blue violets.”
a minto the ripout, while
[Possibly some of the young lady readers of “Our Young Folks” may fancy taking the pains to ascertain what was “watchet color,” or what material was “silver baudekin.” I protest that I know no more about it than my great-grandson will about “mauve” or “magenta,” or “rats," “mice," " waterfalls,” and other adjuncts of the present style of toilet.]
Into the ring came also a hobby-horse and a dragon, the former ambling and prancing about, while
toes of intrusive indithe latter hissed and
viduals. Then there shook his wings, to the
were morris - dancers, great delight of the
with bells attached to multitude. Friar Tuck,
their knees and elbows, meanwhile, marching
who danced and casolemnly about within
pered musically; also the circle of spectators,
they now and again occasionally dropped
slyly cast handfuls of his heavy staff upon the
meal in the faces of
the admiring rustics, or tapped them resoundingly on the head with an inflated bladder hung at the end of a pole. Not intellectual or refined
amusements, certainly, but well fitted to the cultivation and manners of the times, and far better than some of the more brutal sports that modern Englishmen delight in. After trials of skill in archery by Robin Hood and his fellows the regular pageant was concluded, and the villagers, thronging about the May-pole, passed the day in promiscuous dancing.
In the smaller places — the little villages lying here and there, far removed from the great world — much simpler ceremonies were practised, nearly every locality having its own peculiar observances, handed down from father to son. In Cornwall, for instance, it was the custom for a number of young men and women to assemble at a public-house on the evening of the 30th of April, and, waiting till the clock struck the hour of midnight, sally out with violins, drums, and other instruments to the various farm-houses within four or five miles around, where they were expected, and where they were treated to "junket” (curds and whey), cake, etc. Having thus feasted before daylight, they proceeded to gather the May. In Wales, similar parties go about to the farm-houses collecting money, which is used to defray the expenses of a village festival. In all cases, a dance around the village May-pole was the principal feature of the day's proceedings.
Perhaps the most peculiar custom on record was that observed at Temple Sowerby, a village in Westmoreland, where on May-day the villagers assembled on the green and strove who should tell the most thoroughly improbable story, the winner receiving a prize. On one occasion a certain Bishop of Carlisle, passing in his carriage, was arrested by the throng, and inquired its cause. Upon being told, he delivered an impromptu sermon on the sin and folly of such conduct, concluding by saying that, for his part, he had never told a lie in his life. “The Bishop has won !” cried judges and people with one accord, and, whether he would or no, the prize was thrust upon him.
Those Mayers who went about in the early morning from house to house, affixing green branches to the doors, dancing, and sometimes begging, sang rude songs at each stopping-place, of one of which the following is a literal copy:
“THE MAYERS' SONG.
And thus we do begin
Or else we die in sin.
And almost all this day,
We have brought you a branch of May;
It is but a sprout,
But it's well budded out
As green as any leek,
“The moon shines bright and the stars give a light
A little before it is day,
And send you a joyful May."
All the songs used upon these occasions that I have seen contain a quaint mixture of piety with May-flowers, and many of them not a little sage wisdom put in homely phrase. The following verse from one of them contains a sentiment found in nearly all : —
“Mirth we love, – the proverb says
Be ye merry, be ye wise;
There alone true pleasure lies.” But the May-poles and May dances, songs, and ceremonies were by no means confined to the country. Allusions to them by Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and all the lesser lights of English song, show their universality in the kingdom ; and we find them flourishing with unabated gusto in the busy city of London itself, where, at one time, upon May morning, tall poles were duly erected, and verdant arbors stood in Cornhill and the Strand, while green branches overhung the street.
This was a great day for the milkmaids and chimney-sweeps, who paraded the streets in companies, begging a trifle from their customers. It is some sixty years now since the milkmaid of song and picture-book disappeared from the streets of London. Thirty odd years since a Londoner wrote as follows:
"In London thirty years ago,
“Themselves in comely colors dressed,
Their shining garland in the middle,
“They stopped at houses where it was
Their custom to cry, “Milk below!'
“Such scenes and sounds once blest my eyes
And charmed my ears, – but all have vanished;
When the sweeps turned out, they made a grotesque show indeed. One of the party, known as “ Jack in the Green," was covered, with the exception of his legs, with green boughs, garlands, and nosegays; and moved, a dancing bouquet, up and down the streets. They had a Lord and Lady of May, also, attired with all the magnificence possible. And they collected considerable sums of money from the populace, the greater portion of which, I am sorry to say, their hard masters took from them and appropriated to themselves.
But there are neither May-poles nor morris-dancers nor Jacks in the Green now. The festival withstood the attacks of persecution, but died when the ancient simplicity of manners departed from the lower orders of the people, who were its chief upholders. Great abuses had arisen in the observance of the day, and the reforming Parliament (the men who afterwards beheaded Charles the First) passed an act in 1644 to the effect that “all and singular May-poles that are or shall be erected, shall be taken down and removed by the constables, bossholders, tithingmen, petty constables, and churchwardens of the parishes where the same be, and that no May-pole be hereafter set up, erected, or suffered to be set up within the kingdom of England or dominion of Wales; the said officers to be fined five shillings weekly till the said Maypoles be taken down.”
So the May-poles came down.
But though the erection of May-poles was abolished, the celebration of the day could not be entirely suppressed even by the stern hand of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell ; and in 1654 a London print entitled “ The Moderate Intelligencer” contained the following notice: “This day was more observed by people's going a Maying than for divers years past, and indeed much sin committed by wicked meetings, drunkenness, ribaldry, and the like.”
The restoration of the gay and frivolous Charles the Second was of course a signal for the re-establishment of all those public amusements the “Roundheads" had frowned upon; and May-poles again arose, flower-crowned, garlanded with green, in every part of England. They flourished for a long time, - in remote rural nooks even to within the memory of many living men; but it is a question if they will ever arise again from their present downfall.
It would, perhaps, be a good and pleasant thing if they might. Many of the readers of this Magazine play a pretty, innocent, and healthful game, only a few years since revived in England. In Charles the Second's time it was called “Pall Mall," and the gay lords and ladies of his court enjoyed it hugely. Now we call it “Croquet.” Possibly, before we are all gray, a fashion for May games and a May Queen may arise once more across the ocean, in which case, doubtless, we shall follow it to the best of our ability.
7: Warren Newcomb, Jr.