Current Events, Special Days and Historic Anniversaries Brought to Life by Teddy Bears, Pandas and Other Cuddly Creatures


by Elspeth

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Well, were you up at dawn this morning to wash your face in the May dew?  Or perhaps it was in the May rain as, although we’ve been enjoying a spell of warm sunny weather recently, ironically, just when it looked as if summer was just around the corner, rain and colder temperatures are forecast for today.  This really shouldn’t come as a surprise as, in his novel Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope wrote: ‘Let no man boast himself that he has got through the perils of winter till at least the seventh of May.’ 

In case you were wondering, the tradition of rising early on 1st May began because the dew was supposed to have magical properties and so anyone who washed in it would have a beautiful complexion for the rest of the year!  I suppose, nowadays, most people simply use one of the myriads of potions on offer to keep their skin looking good or may even resort to the more drastic option of Botox!

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Another custom called ‘Bringing in the May’ also involved getting up very early to gather flowers to make garlands to give to your friends, which often had a doll in the centre to represent the goddess of spring.  As a result, May Day was sometimes called Garland Day in some parts of the country.  One, which I think is a rather nice idea, was the giving of homemade May baskets filled with flowers and sweets which were usually left anonymously on the doorsteps of friends and family who needed cheering up. 

The month of May is named after the Greek goddess, Maia, the most beautiful of the Seven Sisters constellation, the Pleiades.  The Celts called the first day of the month Beltane, while the Romans named it Floralia, and it was only in the Middle Ages that 1st May became known as May Day.



In this country, as in most of Western Europe, May Day marked the end of the harsh winter when people could look forward optimistically to the bright and productive summer months.  It used to be the most anticipated holiday of the year in towns and villages, particularly in English rural communities, when the celebrations would include music and dancing and the crowning of the May Queen, supposed to be the human version of Flora who, traditionally, took no part in the festivities but sat like a queen in a flower bedecked chair watching her ‘subjects’.  Two other characters who played a part in the festivities in some parts of the country were Jack in the Green and the rather better known Robin Hood.

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Maypole dancing is, perhaps, the best known of all the May Day customs.  However, before the dancing could begin a maypole had to be made which involved cutting down a young tree, usually a tall birch tree, and then stripping it of its branches, leaving only the leaves at the top to symbolise new life.  The tree would then be taken to the town square or village green where it would be decorated with garlands of flowers and ribbons. Historians believe the cutting of the maypole was the villager’s way of establishing their right to cut wood freely from the forest.

Tai Shan with Bamboo

Traditionally the dancers were women, although now anyone can take part. The idea is that each person takes hold of one of the coloured ribbons and then circles the maypole with a sort of hopping, skipping step.  Some of the dancers go in one direction, while others go the opposite way, changing direction at carefully chosen moments until the ribbons are plaited together and wrapped tightly around the maypole.  The process is then reversed and the ribbons unwound.

In 1644, maypoles were banned in England as a ‘heathenish vanity’ and local officials who defiantly erected them could be fined up to five shillings a week, a not inconsiderable sum in those days.  In 1661, a maypole 123 feet tall (the tallest on record) was put up in the Strand to celebrate the return of Charles II, remaining there for fifty years!  It did, however, have another use as Sir Isaac Newton is said to have used it as a support for his telescope!

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May Day is actually two distinct celebrations: one to mark the arrival of spring, (although, for many of us, it’s simply another Bank Holiday) and the other to recognise the efforts of the workers.  We’ve already seen that the first has been a joyous occasion for thousand of years, however, in 1890, May Day took on a more serious connotation when the international labour movement named it International Workers’ Day marked in cities around the world with marches and militant speeches.  Rather amusingly, in 1966, the first World Tramps’ Congress in Argentina named 2nd May the International Day of Idleness!

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When I told The Bears in the Windows they were going to be celebrating May Day with two windows this year, I suggested that we should design one window each. In my simple blossom festooned window, a beautiful May Queen takes centre stage surrounded by her pretty ladies-in-waiting.  However, the bears had much more ambitious plans for their window and decided that they wanted a Robin Hood, which, fortunately, I just happened to have, a May Queen, which was easy as a dainty little panda in a beautiful pink dress fitted the bill, and some maypole dancers, which I thought might be a challenge too far!  However, never one to admit defeat, I actually managed to make a maypole with six little dancers, adding a touch or two of my own, like a basket of spring flowers and a garland with a tiny panda in the centre instead of the traditional doll.  Although I’m not sure the dancers really know what they’re doing, there’s no denying they’re having a good time! 

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