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Bring in the May and Mayhem

by Richard Morrison

For those who see history as a continuous struggle between the powerful and the powerless, today’s date is the most emotive in the calendar. The strange thing is that although the events associated with May Day have changed beyond recognition over the past 1,000 years, the subversive spirit of the day hasn’t. Whether it’s 21st-century anarchists daubing the statue of Churchill with a green Mohican haircut, or medieval peasants congregating in woods for allnight bonking, or Oxford’s Hooray Henrys jumping off Magdalen Bridge, May Day has always been associated with high-spirited pranks. And that’s despite strenuous efforts by governments through the ages to repress these unruly affairs. Even the best-regulated societies, it seems, need one letting-off-steam day a year: a safety-valve for all the in-built resentments bubbling up from below.

That was true even of the earliest May Day celebrations. It was the one ancient pagan rite – a Celtic feast called Beltane, the spring celebration of the god of fire – that the Church didn’t manage to filch for its own purposes. Consequently, it became an annual blast of licentiousness, both in the towns (there’s a famous account of rioting London apprentices in 1517) and, especially, in the countryside. There the tradition of “bringing in the may”, going into the woods at night and plucking flowers, became the excuse for a damn good orgy.

Read the original article at: Times Online

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