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Friday, 1 May, 1998, 07:51 GMT 08:51 UK
Much ado about May Day
May Day has been celebrated since medieval times, when people celebrated with a big feast, lots of drinking and dancing around a specially decorated tree called a maypole - in some parts of the UK it seems not much has changed.

In the UK, we owe our modern May Day bank holiday, this year on May 4, to a national strike in 19th century America. During the strike there was a bomb attack in Chicago which killed seven policemen. Four people were later executed for the crime and the date subsequently became significant for socialists around the world. In 1975, the Labour government decided that Britain should honour the international labour movement and take May 1 as holiday.

May Day
A May Day parade in Moscow
In the past 11 years the Conservative Party has twice tried to abolish May Day in Britain. They suggested replacing it later in the month with a Churchill Day or Trafalgar Day.

Socialist May Day processions continue to take place around the world - in Russia, Cuba, China and North Korea to name just a few countries. In the Czech Republic, the Communist Party is marking May Day this year by releasing a CD of revolutionary songs.

The songs include old socialist favourites such as The International. The first copies of the CD will be available at the communist's May Day rally in Prague. A similar CD was a big hit in Hungary last year.

May Day merriment in the UK

In Oxford people gather at dawn under Magdalen College tower to hear to hear the choristers sing the Latin hymn "Te deum patrem colimus" in a tradition that goes back to the 15th century.

Oxford: ancient traditions
It is also the custom for Oxford University students to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the river Cherwell, after their May Ball the night before. This has led to casualties in the past - four years ago a student broke his back when he landed in shallow water.

This year there are fears that the 226-year-old bridge could collapse under the weight of revellers. The council has put up high barriers in the hope of deterring students intent on taking a dip.

At the opposite end of the country in Edinburgh, thousands of people gather in the evening for a procession around the town on the evening of April 30. The festival is called The Beltane after the Celtic name for May Day. The procession is accompanied by drummers and fire-eaters. Afterwards a large bonfire is lit on a hill above the city.

Morris men on May Day

morris men
Morris men bang sticks together in a traditional dance
If you plan to venture anywhere near the countryside during the next few days you are likely to encounter Morris dancers. A familiar sight in English villages on May Day and throughout the summer, the dancers are traditionally male. The Morris men wear bells and ribbons and dance about banging sticks together and waving handkerchiefs in the air. They have also been known to hit members of the audience on the head with a dried pig's bladder.

Morris Men can be spotted over the next few days at Hever Castle in Kent, Hastings in East Sussex and at the Newborough Well Dressing festival in Staffordshire, to name just a few locations.

See also:

30 Apr 98 | Special Report
May Day history and folklore
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