May 1st is May Day. It is an old festival. In the past, May Day celebrated the start of summer. Today it is a national holiday in Britain. In some towns people dance around a maypole on May Day.
The festivals began in Italy and reached their height in England during the Middle Ages. On the first day of May, English villagers awakened at daybreak to roam the countryside gathering blossoming flowers and branches. A towering maypole was set up on the village green. This pole, usually made of the trunk of a tall birch tree, was decorated with bright field flowers. The villagers then danced and sang around the maypole, accompanied by a piper. Often the fairest maiden of the village was chosen queen of the May. Sometimes a May king was also chosen. These two led the village dancers and ruled over the festivities. In Elizabethan times, the king and queen were called Robin Hood and Maid Marian. Maypoles were usually set up for the day in small towns, but in London and the larger towns they were erected permanently. Today in London children go from house to house bringing flowers in return for pennies. After the pennies are collected, they are thrown into a wishing well. Special wishes are made with hopes they will be granted. The pennies are later collected and given to different charitable organizations. The traditional English chant used when handing out May baskets is:
"Please to smell my garland 'cause it is the first of May.
A branch of May I have brought you, and at your door I stand;
It is but a sprout, but it's well budded out,
The work of our Lady's hand."