Thomas Hardy and the May Day Festival

Tracy Hayes

The first day of May marks the onset of warm weather and fertility in Nature, celebrated in festivals such as the Cerealia, involving club-walking and dancing around a beribboned Maypole. The county of Dorset maintains the May Day tradition, with Morris Dancers performing in the streets and figures representing the Ooser being paraded through villages like Cerne Abbas. May rites date back millenia: the Greeks participated in rather suggestive dances to bring in the Dorian May-wreath; the Romans kept the Floralia from April 28th to May 1st with songs, games and dances. The Teutonic Donar tribe considered the day to be sacred, hosting wild revelries the preceding evening; and in lower Saxony and parts of England the rite involved a May-Riding which comprised a fetching in of the May-wagon, and a 'community walking' which eventually became a civic procession. May Day was the time when brides were chosen, when servants hired out, and tenants took land. On the Isle of Man sheep were often sacrificed on May Day, bonfires were lit, mayflowers adorned the houses, and rowan was tied to the tails of cattle in order to protect them from witchcraft.

The Victorians celebrated May Day to welcome the arrival of Spring as well as the general 'purity' of the season. Young maidens dressed in white and participated in a May Day dance, symbolizing newness and beauty. The Celts celebrated May 1st as Beltane, the day of fire, and Hardy makes a reference to this obscure origin in Tess of the d'Urbervilles through the use of sun imagery – of the May Day maidens 'each and every one had a private little sun for her soul to bask in'. The following passage from the novel illustrates the complexities of young women simultaneously publicly promoting their virginal status whilst also advertising their availability for marriage:

The May-Day dance was to be discerned, on the afternoon under notice, in the guise of the club-revel, or 'club-walking', as it was there called.

It was an interesting event to the younger inhabitants of Marlott, though its real interest was not observed by the participators in the ceremony. Its singularity lay less in the retention of a custom of walking in procession and dancing on each anniversary than in the members being solely women. In men's clubs such celebrations were though expiring, less uncommon: but either the natural shyness of the softer sex, or a sarcastic attitude on the part of male relatives, had denuded such women's clubs as remained (if any other did) of this their glory and consummation. The club of Marlott alone lived to uphold the local Cerealia. It had walked for hundred of years, if not as benefit-club, as votive sisterhood of some sort; and it walked still.

The banded ones were all dressed in white gowns – a gay survival from Old-Style days, when cheerfulness and Maytime were synonyms – days before the habit of taking long views had reduced emotions to a monotonous average. Their first exhibition of themselves was in a processional march of two and two round the parish. Ideal and real clashed slightly as the sun lit up their figures against the green hedges and creeper-laced house-fronts; for, though the whole troop wore white garments, no two whites were alike among them. Some approached pure blanching; some had a bluish pallor; some worn by the older characters (which had possibly lain by folded for many a year) inclined to a cadaverous tint, and to a Georgian style.

Tess returning home from the May Day festivities. Engraving by Hubert von Herkomer, 1891

In addition to the distinction of a white frock every woman and girl carried in her right hand a peeled willow-wand, and in her left a bunch of white flowers. The peeling of the former, and the selection of the latter, had been an operation of personal care.
This is of course the day that we are introduced to Tess Durbeyfield, the purist of all of Hardy's heroines, it is when she first espies Angel Clare, and it is the last time that is able to enjoy her naivete and innocence, blissfully unaware of the corruption to come.

In contrast to this is the May Day celebration which takes place in The Return of the Native.

The folk of the heath wish to erect a maypole on 'the nice green place' just in front of the white palings of Blooms End. Diggory Venn is concerned that the newly widowed Thomasin Wildeve may take umbrage to seeing 'a lot of folk going crazy round a stick under your very nose'. Thomasin has no objections.

Beside Fairway's dwelling was an open space recessed from the road, and here were now collected all the young people from within a radius of a couple of miles. The pole lay with one end supported on a trestle, and women were engaged in wreathing it from the top downwards with wild flowers. The instincts of merry England lingered on here with exceptional vitality, and the symbolic customs which tradition has attached to each season of the year were yet a reality on Egdon. Indeed, the impulses of all such outlandish hamlets are pagan still: in these spots homage to nature, self-adoration, frantic gaieties, fragments of Teutonic rites to divinities whose names are forgotten, have in some way or other survived mediaeval doctrine.

The next morning when Thomasin withdrew the curtains of her bedroom window there stood the maypole in the middle of the green, its top cutting into the sky. It had sprung up in the night, or rather early morning, like Jack's bean-stalk. She opened the casement to get a better view of the garlands and posies that adorned it. The sweet perfume of the flowers had already spread into the surrounding air, which, being free from every taint, conducted to her lips a full measure of the fragrance received from the spire of blossom in its midst. At the top of the pole were crossed hoops decked with small flowers; beneath these came a milk-white zone of may-bloom; then a zone of blue-bells, then of cowslips, then of lilacs, then of ragged-robins, daffodils, and so on, till the lowest stage was reached. Thomasin noticed all these, and was delighted that the May revel was to be so near.

Where May Day celebrations signal the start of what will become Tess's downfall, here they signal new beginnings, for it is now that Thomasin finally agrees to be courted, and indeed goes on to wed, the steadfast Diggory Venn. Such radically different circumstances surrounding what is in effect a common event amply demonstrates not only Hardy's affinity with nature and his knowledge of its folklore customs, but also his implicit understanding of the female character. For after all, he was 'a man who used to notice such things'.

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