May Day madness: Celebrating May Day in Oxford

As today is the 1st May, I thought I’d write my first “Oxford Living” post. To be honest, before I moved to Oxford I just viewed the 1st of May as a normal day, nothing special. I’d never lived anywhere where anything different happened, and in most places in the UK, nothing does. Yet this isn’t the case in Oxford, and the traditional May Day celebrations remain one my favourite city quirks.

May Morning in Oxford is a traditional celebration of the coming of Spring, where everyone flocks to Oxford’s city centre to enjoy dancing, drinking, singing and afterwards, a “champagne breakfast” in one of the many cafes and pubs the city has to offer. Celebrations usually kickoff at 6am with the choristers of Magdalen College choir singing Hymnus Eucharisticus from the top of the college tower. The hymn was composed in the 17th century by a Fellow of Magdalen and has been sung every year from the tower on May Morning. Though sadly I didn’t take part in the celebrations this year (I was too busy trying to drag myself out of bed for work), I have attended May Day about three times in the past. One one occasion, I even managed to make it to my work placement for 9am after getting up at 4.30! I was tired that day. :-p

Below is a video I filmed of the choir on May Day 2008, I know the quality isn’t fantastic but I wanted people to be able to experience at least a small part of the singing.

For me (and I’m sure for many others) May Day in Oxford had always been a bit of a surreal experience which is no doubt exacerbated by the very early start! I remember when I took P to see the choir sing in 2011, it was his first May Day in the UK and I wanted him to experience one of the numerous eccentricities Oxford is home to. I remember us walking into town from Marston where I was living at the time, our route taking us through several fields and over the River Cherwell. Despite the sleep deprivation, there was something special about being outside so early. I found myself appreciating the scenery and stillness and for a short time, it felt like I was letting P in on a secret that only I knew about. That is until we reached the High Street, and were met with a crowd of people.  Some were dressed warmly and sensibly, clutching warm drinks, whilst others were in full blown evening dress (hey it’s Oxford, formal wear is practically uniform a lot of the time here!) and at varying stages of drunkeness. Some students even go in fancy dress – and trust me, they fit in just fine when the other celebrations start later on!

The night before, many places in Oxford host May Day Eve parties and balls, and some pubs and bars stay open later than normal. Some parties go on all night, hence the sizable number of sozzled party goers seen tottering up the High Street in their heels and evening finery the next day. Morris Dancers plus people wandering round in black tie clutching various alcoholic beverages combined with the angelic, almost ethereal, singing from the tower results in a rather dream-like atmosphere. It was very Alice in Wonderland for me the first time I experienced it.  One of my most bizzare memories is being sat at work in Blackwell’s bookshop on May Day 2009 with a thumping hangover, only for a man with cheese on his head to walk past the window. He was closely followed by a walking tree. Alas, I do not have picture of Cheese Man. I do, however, have one of the Walking  Tree – I’ll add it at the end of the post. 🙂


Some (suprisingly sensibly dressed) people making their way back up “The High” in search of breakfast after the singing.

A good fry-up afterwards is essential and there are plenty of places where you can grab your Full English with a glass of fizz to wash it down if you are feeling brave or simply require some Hair of the Dog. If you ever find yourself in Oxford for May Day, Daily Info is second to none for all the information you need to plan your morning. They update their page every year but check out their “What’s On” listing for May Day 2013 to give you a taste of the events usually going on. One of the newer and more controversial May Day traditions (dating back to the 1970s apparently) is for people to jump off Magdalen Bridge into the frighteningly shallow River Cherwell. It’s only actually about 2ft deep and as the jump is made from a fair height, there’s a real possibility of injury. In recent years more measures have been put into place to stop this, but as the above article shows, that doesn’t stop everyone!

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