Celebrating May Day the Oxford way

In Finland May 1st and the day before are celebrated in a BIG way, especially but not exclusively among students. Balloons, streamers, ‘sima’ (a home-made low-alcohol mead), sparkling wine, funnel cake-like fritters, doughnuts, picnics, various student traditions, and a carnival atmosphere are all part of the festivities. Although in most parts of England May Day has no special significance, Oxford is one of the cities that embraces it with open arms. However, it’s not a public holiday unless it falls on a Monday and as the festivities start as early as 6 am, it took me years (and years and years) before I first managed to get myself to town in time. Staying up all night would, of course, be one solution but I need my sleep…!

This year May Day fell conveniently on a Bank Holiday Monday, and because hubby and I also had a friend staying over for a few days, there was no excuse not to take part in some merry making. We just had to make sure we would be on the ‘right side of the bridge’ before 5 am. You see, every May morning thousands of people gather on Magdalen Bridge and the street leading to it before sunrise, effectively blocking the most direct route between the city centre and East Oxford where I live. Some patiently wait over an hour before the celebrations begin on a classical note: the choristers of the Magdalen College choir sing Hymnus Eucharisticus from the Great Tower at 6 am as they have done since the 17th century.

Being super organised, we got to the bridge even before all the barriers to stop anyone from jumping into the river were in place. (That particular student ‘tradition’ started in the 1980s and caused some nasty injuries because of deceptively low water levels and objects such as bikes and shopping trolleys lurking under the water.) We had plenty of time to walk around and check what time pubs and cafes would open for (early) breakfast. At  around 5.30 am we took our positions amongst the crowd on the High Street near the college and took photos of the waving choristers whilst we waited. At 6 am sharp, the bells rang, the choir started,  and the crowds fell quiet. (This short video clip by Oxford City Council shows just how popular the event is. Apparently over 27,000 people turned up this year.)

The tone of the day changed after this relatively somber start. The streets and squares were filled with revellers, bands, and dancers of all kinds, and eateries that had just opened soon had long queues of tired, hungry, and possibly hungover people looking for some sustenance. We saw a salsa group dancing past, enjoyed the catchy, energising tunes of a community street band, were slightly puzzled by Morris dancers, and finally managed to find a seat and breakfast in a basic cafe that was so incredibly busy. (Unlike many other places that morning, they gave coffee in proper mugs instead of disposable cups. I approved!) It wasn’t even 8 am yet and we had been up nearly five hours! What a bizarre, yet good feeling. Whilst we tucked into our vegetarian breakfasts and sipped our coffee, one thought did occur: why on earth would we do something like this?! The answer: because we could, because it was different, because it was fun. I’m already looking forward to next May Day although it will fall on a workday…



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