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Music, Morris Dancing and Crazy Costumes – May Day in Oxford

28th April 2016

May Day – which is, as you might imagine, May 1st – is not a holiday celebrated much in the US, but in Europe it’s a bigger deal, even though it has only been an official Bank Holiday in the UK since 1978. And while May Day celebrations of all kinds are held all over the celebrations held in Oxford are some of the most famous of all.

The Origins of May Day

Although, over the years, May Day has come to mean many different things to different people its’ origins are based in pre-Christian pagan rites. May 1st falls halfway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice and, as such, was considered to be the first day of summer in the pagan calender. The Celts referred to May Day as Beltane and in Rome it was also a day devoted to the Roman flower goddess, Flora. All of these celebrations were characterized by music and dancing, no matter what they were actually intended to be representing.

Like many pagan festivals a Christian holiday was later declared to replace it – Roodmas – but that, and the May Day celebrations that still survived were smothered in Britain during Oliver Cromwell’s rule, although they were revived, to a certain extent, by Charles II when he took back the throne.

The Oxford May Day – or as they are better known May Morning – celebrations draw from all of these past influences and have become as much of a tourist attraction as they are a rite for Oxford University students and the local townspeople.

What Happens in Oxford on May Morning

Technically May Morning kicks off at 6am. Crowds gather at Magdalen College to hear the school choir sing – in proper Latin – the Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of the rather imposing Magdalen Tower. This done, the bells are rung to signify the beginning of the rest of the days festivities. The tradition of jumping into the Cherwell River from the Magdalen Bridge at that point has now been banned, and the bridge is now closed from 530am to 9am.


Video:May Morning Choir Performance

After all of this the real celebrations begin – although some have been celebrating for hours already – and these include morris dancing, live music and the traditional May Morning breakfast which is served up at cafes and restaurants across the city.

Just as much of an attraction as these things are many of people. For some, May Day is an excuse to dress up in the most extravagant of Spring inspired finery and a number of plays and other shows are staged across the city as well.

To get a better idea of just what goes on during the Oxford May Day festivities, and the sights you could expect to see, check out our photo gallery below:

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