Deep Dive: May Day Carol

Posted on April 1, 2024 in , ,

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By Susan Brumfield

No matter where you go, there’s one thing that people everywhere have in common: the passing of time. Every culture has its own ways of marking special days of the year with food, festivals, music, dance and other traditions. “May Day” is a calendar custom celebrated around the world. It signifies the end of the cold winter and looks ahead to bright and productive days of spring and summer. “The May Day Carol” is a “visiting” carol of the season in England. Traditionally, young people would spend the evening before May Day gathering flowering branches and greenery, weaving garlands to decorate their homes and making baskets to deliver to friends and neighbors. Sometimes the gift was hung in secret, but often, children presented the basket of flowers and other small gifts while singing the carol.  

In a tradition that began in 1509, students at Magdalene College in Oxford still gather at the top of a tower at six o’clock in the morning on the first day of May to sing “Te Deum Patrem Colimus.” Morris Dancers with ribbons and swords fill the streets, garlands are paraded throughout the town, and a “Jack-in-the-Green” may appear, covered from head to toe in foliage. 

The May Day Carol is also well known in the United States. This version is adapted from the singing of Kentucky folksinger Jean Ritchie and the Ritchie family, who sang it even before Jean was born. In “Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians”, Jean recalled gathering flowers and greenery from the woods to make May baskets. She explained, “We didn’t dare linger to sing for fear we’d be recognized (and the fun was to guess who made each basket). So we sang the carol on any soft spring evening when the family and friends gathered to share good talk, stories and music.” Jean recorded her family’s version of the song for Alan Lomax in 1949; you can listen to it on the Lomax Digital Archive (housed by the Association for Cultural Equity: Jean also sings May Day Carol on the 1959 “Carols of All Seasons” (Tradition Records; re-released in 1997 as “Carols for All Seasons”).

Brumfield, Susan. 2024. First We Sing! 101 Songs & Games for Singing, Playing, and More! Adapted with permission. Milwaukee, WI: Hal Leonard.

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