Marking the Start of Summer

Last night, my daughter phoned me to remind me that today was the first of May, and to ask me if I’d be going to watch the dancing up of the sun. I nearly didn’t go, but my daughter does a far more tiring job than I do, and works longer hours, so her enthusiasm for leaving her house at five o’clock in the morning ending up infecting me!

Not so very far away, on Ashdown Forest, there is a high point called Gill’s Lap, with spectacular views over green fields, gently rolling hills, and little Sussex villages. This spot also features in the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, so it is doubly popular with tourists. For many locals, though, it is the place where the sun is danced up on May Day morning.
The Ashdown Forest Morris Men and the Shalesbrook Ladies’ Morris come together for few of their dancing events during the year, but on the 1st May, the old first day of summer, they both arrive at Gill’s Lap before dawn, and take it in turns to present dances. A revival of a much older tradition, this festival of dance could be a joyous response to the advent of warmer weather, although some claim that it was once believed that unless sufficient appreciation or encouragement was shown to the sun, he might not rise at all, or might not shine down so beneficently on Earth’s children. It’s entirely possible, of course, that many different meanings were held by various communities long ago.
It’s quite a social occasion, with a surprising number of families, individuals and groups of various sorts coming together to watch the dancing, join in the singing, and meet up with other people one may not have seen since last time. My daughter and I reminisced about earlier occasions – we realised that we have attended this event most years for the last twenty or so years! – and this set me thinking about other ways that I have celebrated the start of summer.
When I was a child, we used to crown a “Queen of the May” at home on the first of May. I don’t know quite what first prompted this: perhaps it was a response to May Day festivities we had seen in nearby villages, for I can remember attending May processions in East Grinstead, and going to May Day fêtes in Dormansland, or it may have grown out of something one of us read or heard. As far as I can recall, it was important to us that the Queen of the May should be the youngest girl available, so I believe it was always my youngest sister who had that honour. It usually involved one of us older girls making a wreath of flowers for a crown, and the other playing music on the recorder to accompany the procession. My mother and my youngest sister’s friends were usually willing participants, my brothers somewhat more reluctant ones!
When I moved to Paris, I was introduced to a new custom. In France, wild lily of the valley is traditional worn at the buttonhole to celebrate the advent of summer – a custom apparently started in the sixteenth century, when the King of France had sprigs of this flower distributed to all the members of his court to mark the first of May. It’s even enshrined in French law that anyone may sell wild lily of the valley in the streets, without needing a licence or to register in any way as a market trader! Some of my fellow students used to catch the first train of the day to the Bois de Vincennes, where they would fill baskets with hurriedly gathered flowers, which they would assemble into sprigs with scraps of foil or paper or with elastic bands on the train back into the centre of Paris. By the start of the rush hour, there would students by most métro stations and on main street corners, selling the wild flowers that were far more highly prized than the cultivated specimens that could be bought from florists or market stalls.
I find it interesting that these and other traditions may differ in the way that they celebrate this time of year, but there is a universal impulse to mark the arrival of summer.