Thursday 2 May 2019

May Day!

Many of us will enjoy a bank holiday next week, but did you know that May Day celebrations have taken place for centuries?  The earliest, known as Floralia, dates back to Roman times - a festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers.  Festivities were banned in the UK during Puritan times, but traditions such as maypole dancing, crowning the May Queen and Morris dancing continue to the present day.  Cheshire Archives and Local Studies are fortunate to have some images and documents that show some of the many traditions and celebrations of this festival. 

A key May Day Festival in the Cheshire calendar takes place in Knutsford.  It was first held in 1864, and is known as Knutsford Royal May Day Festival after a visit in 1887 by the then Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra), who gave the organising committee permission to use the prefix ‘Royal’ from then on.  As well as the crowning of the May Queen, Knutsford has a unique custom of ‘sanding’, where coloured sand is laid in mottoes and patterns on the streets.  According to the Official Programme we have from 1955, the origin of sanding comes from King Canute (who reigned from 1016 to 1035).  He is said to have,
"forded a brook near Knutsford and sat down to shake the sand out of his shoes.  While he was doing this a bridal party passed by – he shook the sand in front of them and wished them joy, and as many children as there were grains of sand.  The Festival Committee were very proud of this local custom and ‘sanding’ is still kept up at the Royal May Day Festival”.
That programme lists all the May Queens and Crown Bearers back to 1864, and a portrait of the 1955 Queen appears on the front cover. 


We also hold another May Festival programme dating back even earlier – from Runcorn in 1908.  This includes a detailed account of the procession, the people taking part and the various dances and other entertainment at the event, as well as the charities that stood to benefit from the proceeds. 
Maypole dancing has been a popular May Day tradition since the Middle Ages, and there are several prints available on the Cheshire Image Bank that show maypoles from across Cheshire West and Cheshire East. 
This selection shows a maypole being decorated mid-dance in Winsford at the May Festival at Whitegate in the 1960s; children at Elworth School in Sandbach in the 1920s, and at Vernon School in Poynton between 1910 and 1919.

May Festivals culminate in the crowning of the May Queen.  Here is a selection of May Queens, Attendants and Crown Bearers from across Cheshire from the early 20th Century: at Knutsford between 1910 and 1919, at Chester Roodee Racecourse in 1926 and in Handbridge in the 1930s.

However you might be celebrating, we wish you a happy May Day 2019!


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