When is May Day in 2022 and what festivals can I attend?

May Day festivals are back with a bang this year. Whether you fancy being at the largest Morris gathering in the world or watching drumming, fire displays and fantastic fairy costumes, here's what's on this May Day bank holiday in 2022.

Man in pan costume with green face and ivy costume
Published: April 26th, 2022 at 8:22 am
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After two years of cancelled events and restrictions, festivals are back bigger and better than ever in 2022. May Day celebrations can date back to our Celtic heritage, and this year the atmosphere throughout the UK is set to be euphoric as we enjoy life as normal again.

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Whether you're thinking of joining the fire displays and goblin costumes of the Beltane Fire Festival in Scotland, enjoying the floral displays at Helston Flora Day or dabbing your nose with green paint and cheering on Hastings' Jack In The Green, here are the best May Day celebrations to join in with this year – and a little history of May Day to explain it all.

When is May Day?

May Day is traditionally a public holiday in the UK celebrated on or around 1st May. In 2022 the May Day bank holiday will take place on Monday 2nd May.

Blue tit in spring blossom

History and traditions of May Day

In Britain, Celtic people celebrated the festival of Beltane on the first of May to mark the halfway point between spring and summer. In contrast, the festival of Samhain (now celebrated as Halloween on 31 October) fell hallway between autumn and winter, on 1 November.

Beltane is one of the few pagan festivals that survived the take-over of Christianity in Britain. Many of our old customs that celebrate new life and fertility are still out there today, including Morris dancing, Jack-in-the-Green and dancing around the maypole.

Sixteenth century people dancing around a traditional Maypole in an English village. Credit: Getty

The earliest maypoles were probably young trees chopped down and erected on the village green with ribbons pinned to the top for local children to dance around. Today rehearsals often take place weeks in advance to ensure that the ribbons form artful plaits around the maypole instead of a tangled web of knots.

Morris Dancing traditions

Morris Men seeing in the 1st May/Credit: Getty 

Despite often being the butt of jokes, Morris dancers are in high demand on May Day, performing at pubs and on village greens up and down the country. Many Morris dancers dance in the dawn, including the Wessex Morris Men who climb above the Cerne Abbas Giant at 5.15am and the Men of Wight who circle the megalithic Longstone at Mottistone as the sun comes up. Morris dancing dates back at least 600 years although it is unclear where the dance style came from, or what it represents. The majority of groups that exist today were formed after the 1930s, basing their dancing style on information collected by folklorists, although some groups, including those at Abingdon and Chipping Campden, can trace their routes back to the 1800s.

Dressing up in strange costumes appears to be a running theme when it comes to celebrating May Day, and nothing beats the attire of Jack in the Green, who wears a foliage-covered frame work in May Day parades. It is widely believed that the Jack represents the Green Man, a symbol of fertility, but Jacks have also adopted sometimes adopted the cheeky character of Puck.

Although many May Day celebrations date back centuries, they vary from place to place. We’ve rounded up five examples of classic May Day celebrations that take places this weekend.


Best traditional May Day events 2022

The May Day celebrations have altered from their ancient folk roots, differentiating in each of the communities, which still embrace the traditions. Local events such as Maypole dances and country fairs are commonplace for May Day Bank Holiday and make for a great family day out.

The Clun Green Man Festival, Shropshire

2nd May

Man in pan costume with green face and ivy costume
The spirit of nature, The Green Man/Credit: Getty

Crowds will gather on Clun Bridge in Shropshire to witness the Green Man defeat the Frost Queen to ensure there is a summer in the valley. The leafy face of the Green Man represents nature, fertility, and the cycle of death and rebirth. After his victory the Green Man will lead a garland-festooned parade to the grounds of Clun Castle. Expect music, crafts, magic shows, maypoles and, of course, Morris.

clungreenman.org


Beltane Fire Festival, Edinburgh

30 April – 1 May

Ceremony by fire light at Beltane Fire Festival/Credit: Getty

As well as daytime Jack-in-the-Green celebrations, there's a wilder side to 1st May. The Scottish Beltane Fire Festival is a revitalised celebration of Celtic culture: the fire believed to cleanse, purify and increase fertility of all the festival participants. Get ready for some seriously exciting drumming, fire displays, acrobatics, body paint, some nudity and hordes of otherworldly creatures including Beastie Drummers and Red Men exhibiting 'uninhibited behaviour'.

On the evening of 30 April, join several thousand people at congregate at Calton Hill in the centre of Edinburgh. Beltane Fire Festival will involve around three hundred voluntary performers, marking the end of the Scottish winter and welcoming the summer season ahead with optimism.

edinburghguide.com/events/beltane-fire-festival


Jack-in-the-Green Festival, Hastings

29 April – 2nd May

Costumed people parade through the Old Town during the annual Jack In The Green festival. The event marks the May Day public holiday in Britain. /Credit: Getty

Dressing up in strange costumes appears to be a running theme when it comes to celebrating May Day, and nothing beats the attire of Jack in the Green, who wears a foliage-covered frame work in May Day parades. It is widely believed that the Jack represents the Green Man, a symbol of fertility, but Jacks have also adopted sometimes adopted the cheeky character of Puck.

Hastings celebrates the start of summer with an annual Jack-in-the-Green festival. Look out for the procession following The Release of the Jack, culminating in The Slaying of the Jack, representing the release of the Spirit of Summer. There will be Morris, dancing and real ale. Prepare to have your face dabbed with green paint by random dancing characters if you haven't already got some on there.

hastingstraditionaljackinthegreen.co.uk


Jack in the Green, Rochester Sweeps Festival, Kent

29 April – 2 May

Rochester's annual folk celebration 'The Sweeps' might be the largest gathering of Morris 'sides' in the world. 2020 would have been itts 40th anniversary, so after two years of cancellations, this year is expected to be a big one. For three days, every pub will have a band playing throughout the day, every street will be filled with Morris dancers clacking sticks, and every park will be full of people. The atmosphere here is hard to beat.

The hardcore can attend the crack-of-dawn Jack in the Green awakening ceremony at 5am on Bluebell Hill picnic area, where Morris dancers and sweeps bring Jack back to life. Or you can wait until Monday and watch the procession from Star Hill at 2.45pm.

visitmedway.org/events/rochester-sweeps-festival-2022-79679/


Obby Osses Day, Padstow

Crowds around the maypole at the Padstow May Day 'Obby 'Oss Day Festival, Cornwall/Credit: Getty

Padstow comes alive with the sound of music and merriment every May. On 29 April, locals will decorate the town with coloured flags, flowers and greenery and put up the maypole, ready for the release on the 1 May of the two hobby horses ('osses) – one red, one blue – which emerge from their stables.

Each one consists of a 6ft wide wooden hoop draped in black sail cloth and hoisted onto a fearsomely, masked local chap. They prance through the town followed by a troupe of musicians, singers, drummers and dancers.

In 2019, safety arrangements at the festival came under scrutiny after a paediatric nurse sustained an injury from one of the 'osses, and died shortly afterwards. Coroners are yet to establish whether the knock caused her death.

cornwalls.co.uk/events/obby_oss.htm


Riding of the Bounds, Berwick-Upon-Tweed

30 April

Berwick's bounds date back to 1438 when representatives from England and Scotland agreed where one country would end and where the other would begin. The tradition of patrolling the bounds on horseback to protect against the Scots dates back as far as 1542. Watch the 150 horsemen and women parade through the town from the Barracks to the Guildhall before beginning their ride to continue this tradition.

berwickridersassociation.co.uk/


Helston Flora and Furry Dance, Cornwall

7 May

Performers with the Hal-an-Tow pageant take part in a performance as part of the Helston Flora Day celebrations/Credit: Getty

Every May, thousands of people take to the streets of Helston for a Cornish festival that's "bigger than Christmas": the Helston Flora Day. It's in the spirit of Beltane, celebrating springtime, renewal and fertility. Houses and shops are decorated with greenery and an abundance of beautiful flower displays. At 7am, the bass drum sounds and couples begin to dance down the street, entering selected houses and and shops to drive out winter's darkness and welcome in the spring.

This is followed by the seasonal folk play, Hal-an-Tow, a hodgepodge of storylines including the fight against the Spanish Armada, St George and the dragon, and the fight between St Michael and the devil. You can see it staged at several venues throughout the town.

helstonfloraday.org.uk

Read our feature on the Helston Floral Day


The Hunting of the Earl of Rone, Combe Martin, Devon

27 – 30 May

Possibly one of the strangest things to happen in Britain, this event is based on a fictional chapter of ‘history’. A fool and a hobby horse, accompanied by grenadiers, search the village for the Earl of Tyrone. He is finally captured, mounted on a donkey and paraded through the village, repeatedly shot and revived, shot one last time, taken to the beach and thrown in the sea. Because you can never be too careful.

earl-of-rone.org.uk/


Castleton Garland day, Peak District

30 May

Elements of beating the bounds, Oak Apple Day (a commemoration of the restoration of Charles II in 1660) and traditional spring festival all appear to collide in this colourful ceremony, usually held on 29 May. A beehive shaped head-dress, covered with wildflowers and greenery, is worn over the head and shoulders of the Garland King, who is dressed in Stuart costume. There is a parade and dancing, accompanied by girls from the village school. The Garland, now separated from its wearer, is hoisted up the church tower and impaled on the pinnacle. Maypole dancing rounds off the big day. The tune used for the procession is similar to that of Helston’s The Faddy.

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castleton-garland.com/

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