“The first of May is Garland Day So please remember the garland. We don't come here but once a year, So please remember the garland.”
The above rhyme, recalled by a woman from Norfolk in the 1950s reflects a common custom found around the country until relatively recently, in which on May Morning children, mostly girls, would go from house to house carrying a well dressed doll either in the centre of a garland made from two hoops, one at right angles inside the other, decorated with leaves and flowers or in a flower filled box, basket or cradle.
Some girls would cover the whole construction with a cloth and ask each householder if they would like to see the May Doll, or the May Lady, the Queen of the May or, in some counties, the Maulkin.
Once the householders agreed to see the garland, the veil would be lifted and they would be expected to pay money or offer a gift to the children.
In a number of other places the garland was made the central feature of a community procession. Such was the case in Bampton, Oxfordshire, where a number of garlands were paraded through the streets (though this was not on May 1 but on Whit Monday) and at Somerton, in the same county, where a doll was carried in procession on May Morning.
Flora Thompson included in ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ a description of the garland parade in her community. Shaped like a bell on a four feet tall wooden frame, their garland was covered in violets, primroses, wallflowers and oxlips.
She explained that the children (in the 1880s) would wear their best clothes – the girls in light coloured frocks and the boys in bright ribbons and bows worn crosswise, and they would walk in procession, along with a May King and Queen, for seven miles around the district, singing and collecting money to be shared at school the next day.
This procession was similar to one in Bishop's Teignton in Devon, as described in a letter to The Times in 1927. In this example the girls (who were under the age of 12) carried dolls in be-flowered baskets, and the boys (under the age of 14) garlands made of short flower-wreathed poles, some in the shape of a fan.
One of the boys would also carry a doll tied to his garland to represent the King of the May. All the children received pennies for their efforts.
The May Garlands of Lincolnshire resembled those of the Devon boys though they were called May gads and were peeled willow wands decorated with cowslips.
At Horncastle until the end of the 18th century boys would carry their gads on May Morning from a place called May Bank to a maypole on a hill on the west side of the town. They would then strike the gads together so that the yellow cowslips would be scattered to represent the beginning of summer.
There would then be a big bonfire in the evening.
At one time children were encouraged by the village schools to make flower garlands for Garland Day, but it was just girls who gathered in the flowers and other foliage, the most popular of which were the flowering hawthorn, or whitethorn though in some areas such as the vale of Taunton Dene this was seen as unlucky.
The people of the Wales and the Marches preferred birch and the Cornish preferred sycamore.
A woman from a village near Cambridge recalled a variation on the traditional May Garland customs. When she was young (in the late 19th century) she would be up before sunrise to prepare a garland which she would then, with her friends, take round the houses to sing and wake people up.
At Midday the garland would be strung across the road and children would throw small balls over it. The same custom was also carried out in Huntingdonshire where large pyramid shaped garlands (much like Flora Thompson recalled) were hung up and in at least once place there was a community dance in the evening.
Sadly, in many places the Garland Day celebrations seemed to have died out in the late 1930s though in some country villages and in parts of Manchester, Stockport and Oxford the custom survived into the 1970s. There has been much debate about what the May Doll represents. Some believed it was the Virgin Mary, to whom the month was dedicated, others Flora or the May Queen.
One of a group of young girls told a folklorist in Bampton, Oxfordshire in the 1970s that their doll represented a goddess whilst another in the group said it was Minerva!
In Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire, two dolls, one smaller than the other, were carried in a covered decorated chair to resemble the Virgin and Child.