May Garland Service at Charlton-on-Otmoor
May garlanding is a major calendar event in the Oxfordshire village of Charlton-on-Otmoor. There, children from the Church of England St Mary the Virgin Primary School form an annual procession to the parish church for a unique May Garland Service.
The children carry a long rope strung with garlands, as well as bouquets and small crosses decorated with flowers. These are first displayed at the village school where a May Day Carol is sung. Then the children bear the garlands through the streets to the Church, accompanied by a King and Queen of the May borne in a horse-drawn trap. The Carol is sung again at sites along the route.
Inside St Mary's Church, the garlands are hung from the top of the fine 16th-century rood screen. The half-hour service includes hymns and readings, and afterwards there is maypole dancing in the playground of the village school.
Though generally held on the first of May the service may be held later in the month, depending on the school calendar. In 2017 Charlton had its celebration on 26th May.
The extraordinary leafy cross above the rood screen remains in situ all the year round. It is redecorated with box foliage twice a year, once on May Day and once on 19 September.
May garlands were once so associated with May Day that in some parts of Britain May Day was called Garland Day. The garland (which had many curious local variants) was typically formed of a hoop, or two hoops one at right angles inside the other. They were braided with leaves, ribbons and wild flowers, sometimes with a doll placed inside to represent the May Queen, or Flora herself.
‘A great tumult and uproar…’
May garlands were a target of the Puritans. On May Day in 1633, a labourer named John Wildgoose of St Peter le Bailey parish in Oxford provoked a fight by trying to stop the annual ‘bringing in the garland’ at St Peter’s church. This seems to have been a popular ceremony, which people from other parishes came to attend.
The case came to trial the following year, when Wildgoose was described in the Church court deposition as ‘a factious man or a puritan and consorted with other puritans.’ He refused to stand up in church for the reading of the Gospel or to bow at the name of Jesus. He had jeered and mocked when the parishioners wanted their Whitsun sports. When the King’s declaration was shown as a warrant for the civil and honest sports, Wildgoose scoffed, ‘then you may take your garland and set it upon the top of the pulpit if you will.’
On May Day when the parishioners brought in their garland, Wildgoose asked that the church wardens ‘throw that wicked toy or bauble out of the church.’ When the garland was brought in and the youths were going to ring the bells in the customary manner, Wildgoose said ‘O impudent and wicked people, God no doubt will avenge himself on you if he be any God at all.’
There was, it appears, a ‘great tumult and uproar in the church’; the garland was pulled down and torn, and many of the parishioners were beaten, punched and pulled by the hair.
Garlands in Oxfordshire
By Victorian times, hostility to May garlands had evaporated. In Lark Rise to Candleford, Flora Thompson provides a vivid decription of a garland made by the schoolchildren of Juniper Hill on the border between Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire, in the 1880s. The wooden frame was 4 feet tall, bell-shaped and smothered with primroses, violets, cowslips, wallflowers, oxlips and currant flowers. A china doll, known as ‘the lady’ hung in the centre of the garland.
May garlands might be hoisted on a long staff or broom handle to be paraded by children about the town or village, one of them carrying a money box. The children had chants. In Thame the words ran:
Please to see my garland/Because it's the First of May
Give me a penny/Then I will go away.
The money received was usually divided up between the children, and spent on sweets.
Among the variants in customs, a Studley woman recalls, 'For May Day at Studley we made garlands of spring flowers by tying on and weaving the stems of flowers into an old bicycle wheel, so that the wheel was completely covered. If we had no wheel we made a star shape with crossed sticks. The flowers were put on at the very last minute to keep the garland fresh looking. We used white bells, bluebells, polyanthus, wallflowers etc.'
Garlanding in Sutton Courtenay
Thanks to Mary Thompson for the following extract describing May Day Garlanding in Sutton Courtenay. It comes from an account of life as a boy in the village by Henry George Lock (born 1876).
The day before May 1st we would search the meadows for wild flowers. When the season was late it was a job to find enough. Also ‘our good branch of May’ that we sang about was always blackthorn as, since the calendar was altered, I doubt if you ever get May blossom out by the 1st. Well on the morning of the 1st we went from house to house with our garlands. It was generally the girls and small boys as when the boys got older they were shy of that sort of thing.
This is what we sang in our village:
Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen
We wish you a happy day
I come to show our garland
Because it’s the first of May.
A good branch of May I have brought you
And at your door do stand
It’s only a sprout, but it’s well budded out,
It’s the work of our Lord’s hand.