Date of Publication: 30 April 2020
Every year, on May 1st, thousands of people gather on the streets of Oxford before dawn in a unique tradition to welcome the start of May.
May Morning, as it is more commonly known, is a traditional celebration of Spring in the UK, and brings together communities to enjoy dancing, singing and revelry from around the city of Oxford.
May Morning’s History
Though it’s not certain, historians believe that the May Morning celebrations date back to around 500 years ago to mark the completion of the build of Magdalen Tower in 1509.
As with any tradition, May Morning’s celebrations have taken many different forms over the centuries. From lengthy live music events with local bands and orchestras, to the choral performance that we know today, it was once even used as a rather solemn gathering to mark the memory of King Henry VII.
You may have noticed that May Morning is on the same date as the celebrated May Day, which is derived from Pagan traditions. The first ever May Day celebration is speculated to date back to the Roman era, when teenagers and young adults would celebrate the arrival of spring with 6 days of dancing, singing and parades, and dedicate it all to the goddess, Flora.
The celebration of May Day is not restricted to the UK and is celebrated across the world. For example, in Italy, singers called ‘maggerini‘ dress themselves in fresh flowers and green sprigs of alder for the occasion. Going from door-to-door, they sing songs to residents in exchange for small gifts such as eggs and sweets.
Across the globe – in Hawaii – May Day is referred to as Lei Day, where hundreds gather for live music and crafting competitions to celebrate their version of the May Queen, Lei Queen.
May Morning Celebrations in Oxford
Though May Morning celebrations officially start at 6am, many people (especially students) start celebrating the night before and party through into the morning.
A huge event in Oxford’s calendar, local pubs and cafes tend to open early just for May Morning, offering food and refreshments to those who gather in the streets early. Several major roads in the city centre are usually closed to allow for Morris dancers and folk singers to participate in the celebrations.
At 6am, the Magdalen College Choir climb to the top of Magdalen Tower and sing the 17th-Century hymn, Hymnus Eucharisticus, which was written by former student, Benjamin Rogers. The hymn is then followed by 20 minutes of bell-ringing from the tower to mark the start of May.
Some students used to then finish their celebrations by jumping off of Magdalen Bridge, but this tradition was banned in recent years due to the amount of injuries being incurred.
*Note: For 2020, due to current circumstances May Morning celebrations will take place virtually. Starting at 6am on Friday 1st May, you can stream the choir’s performance over on their Facebook which will then be uploaded to their website.
Want to learn more about the unique traditions that are celebrated in Oxford? Check out our History of Oxford series of blogs to learn more about the historic city.