What May Day traditions can children enjoy?

May blossom for May Day - also called hawthorn, whitethorn, maythorn etc. - photo by D.H.Wright - CC-BY

May blossom for May Day - also called hawthorn, whitethorn, maythorn etc. - photo by D.H.Wright - CC-BY

If you want to celebrate May Day as a family, or with a larger group of kids, try planning some activities based on old traditions. Creating your own festival is just as good as going to see a parade, or watching other people dancing round a maypole. And you can do both!

May Day in England once used to start with “fetching in the may“. The evening before May 1st, or early next morning, young people would head out to find flowers and greenery, especially hawthorn branches carrying may blossom. It  was a day for celebrating nature and spring growth.

If you know places where kids can gather their own greenery that’s great. Otherwise, see what you can offer them to tie together into May garlands. Give them a few ribbons as well as the useful stuff like string, elastic bands, and pieces of wire. (Keep an eye on the wire.)

Garlands and leafy branches were traditionally hung on doorways, barns, gates etc. Decorate your front door first, and then you can give a festive springtime look to other parts of the house – but beware of the superstition that says bringing hawthorn indoors is unlucky.

Garlands and flowers were also hung on a May tree or mini-maypole made from a suitable branch, or sometimes on a doll/lady, and carried round  by children to houses where they would sing or say rhymes. This could be a brief visit just showing off what they’d created, or more of a performance. Either way, they were hoping for a small reward. You can convert this tradition into a family or neighbourhood event. A local park may be a good venue for some activities.

With younger children, families can work together to make a May tree and learn a spring song or two. Give older kids space to plan their own portable maypole and a simple show. This gives everyone a chance to put together some fancy dress.

That brings us to the next tradition: the May Queen. One girl was selected to preside over festivities like dancing round the full-size maypole. You may not want to pick out just one person to wear the only crown, let alone sit by herself on a throne. Choose some princesses/attendants who also wear something white, or a special head-dress.

Luckily there always were other traditional characters to play their parts and get involved in dressing up. Robin Hood and Maid Marian wear something green, and Jack-in-the-Green wears leaves.  Help anyone who wants to make a leafy crown, or stick a flower in their hat or hair.

Offer scarves, hats, belts, fabric remnants, and other bits and pieces to help children turn themselves into woodsmen, flower fairies, or anyone else who fits in to a spring celebration of nature. After some time spent with dressing-up stuff, singing and/or dancing practice can begin. Some children prefer to show off their running, climbing, throwing, or circus skills like cartwheels or juggling.

Prepare treats that will reward everyone for putting on a good show. Maybe flower-decorated cakes, or “outdoor” food cooked over a fire?

Another tradition that you may be able to work in with your plans is kissing the dew: washing your face in the morning dew for beauty and good luck.

I hope the adults have fun as well as the kids!

Our song is done, we must be gone,
No longer can we stay.
God bless you all, both great and small,
And we wish you a happy May.

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