(originally published - May 2009)
May was traditionally the time of village festivities. The first holiday was of course Mayday, celebrated not on 1st May here, but on 12th May. (Oxhill plainly had never fully accepted the change to the calendar in 1751, when 11 days were “lost”.) Evelyn Colyer, nee Gilks, a child in Oxhill during the First World War, has described the preparations, when the school hand-basins, filled with water from the pump outside, overflowed with may-blossom, narcissi and other spring flowers. The bigger girls helped the teachers weave into and over a large egg-shaped wire-mesh shape, fixed by a long spike to a pole about the size of a broomstick. When this was “completely hidden in a great ball of blossom, wide white ribbon was tied round the pole in a big bow, and the finished Maypole was given to the biggest boy to carry.” The children then set off in procession behind the Maypole and the May Queen to sing May songs all around the village, where“most people came to their doors to hear the singing, and to put a small coin into the hat”. After lunch, the bigger children took the Maypole round the outlying farms. The money collected paid for tea at the school, and Evelyn remembers “currant buns, bread and farm butter, home-made jam and the baker’s delicious dough cake.”
Empire Day, in Evelyn’s time considered “the biggest and most important celebration of the year” was next, held on May 24th. Evelyn writes “At that time of course, the British were lords of the earth. We owned one-third of the inhabited globe, we had the biggest Navy in the world, and a very powerful Army. We children were very conscious of our privileged position, and proud to be English. ….” “We glowed with patriotism and fervour as we bawled “The British Grenadiers, “Land of Hope and Glory and “Hearts of Oak”, frightening the rooks out of the trees surrounding the playground and stopping passers-by in their tracks.”
Empire Day was first inaugurated after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, and even then it was not celebrated annually everywhere until 1916. Evelyn’s account of national dominance may read uncomfortably now, as history can sometimes do, but she is just telling it how it was.
The third festival was May 29th,officially Royal Oak Day, but popularly known as Oak Apple Day, created to celebrate the return of the Stuarts to the throne in 1660, (the date being Charles II’s birthday and the day of his official accession). The oak-leaf symbol commemorated Charles’s escape after the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, after hiding in an oak tree - already a well known tale. For two centuries the day was fully celebrated, with bonfires and bell-ringing, but its importance gradually shrank, and it was abolished as a public holiday in 1859. It continued however to be locally marked, - (in one or two places it still is) - and everyone was expected to wear an oak leaf. Evelyn’s memory of the day was that it was“not so pleasant! Every child was expected to wear a sprig of oak leaves…, and if you were unlucky enough to forget, you were chased by boys who stung you with nettles.” Some villages actually called it Nettle Day. Country customs are not all benign!