Monday, 30 April 2012

First of May is Garland day, The Vineyard, May 1911

"Please remember the Garland"

Wrote Maude Egerton King in The Vineyard in May 1911.

"In the southern counties of England, it often comes to pass on May morning that the gentlefolk who are still in their beds, or in the act of dressing, or even breakfasting, according to the time-table of the particular house, become aware of children's voices out of doors.  And, if they look, of the children themselves, wearing and carrying floral decorations.  They will hear, spoken or chanted, over and over again: -

          First of May
          Is garland day,
          Please to remember the garland.

When the words reach the ear as -

          First of My
          Is garland dy,

Garland Day in the garden at Sandhouse, Witley
from The Ailing Countryside and prescriptions  for some forthcoming physic by "Home Counties"
c. 1910

There needs no milestone to convince the listener of being within forty miles of Hyde Park Corner (- nb. the 40 miles to Hyde Park Corner milestone stands in Haslemere High Street).  If the district were further removed from that centre of culture, it is quite possible the little chant will be followed by the beautiful May-day song:

          I've been a -wandering all this night
          And some of this day,
          And now returning home again,
          I've brought you a garland gay.

          A garland gay I've brought you here,
          And at your door I stand.
          'Tis nothing but a sprout,
          But it's well budded out
          By the work of our Lord's hand.

Here and there the gentlefolk are dimly conscious that the little group they are looking upon is the very last of a vanishing picturesque past, and, in a sudden stir of pity and pleasure, send out largess.  More often the children are hardly noticed, and if it were not for the servants (who always find something for these and for carol-singers and organ-grinders too) they would clatter away no heavier by a single penny or bun.
detail from embroidered panel,
designed by Godfrey Blount, 1896, V&A Museum

And yet, as sheer matter of fact, these children are the faithful priests of an ancient and universal religion, and their weak shoulders, alone of all to-day, uphold the age-long tradition; of which they know no more than the eternal human heart in their breasts and their unlettered mothers can tell them.  They come from far, and are just the remnant of a great company who have dropped off by the way: whose very names they have forgotten, although they would know and welcome them did they ever meet them again.  They do not know that they are one of the multitude in many lands and ages, but so it is.  The fellows of these little people in pinafores and clumsy boots, sang love-songs of rapturous welcome to the swallow two thousand years ago in Greece.  And to-day, over the same ground, they pass in little companies, carrying a wooden swallow from door to door, asking gifts of fruit and cheese from those who welcome with them this harbinger of fruitful days, and singing.

          She is here, she is here,
          The swallow that brings us the beautiful year;
          Open wide the door,
          We are children again, we are old no more.

They broke the green boughs in the woods of Roman Britain and decked their homes with them for the Floralia, the festival which the Romans brought hither along with sterner things; and they danced around a flowery pole set up in honour of the sweet Goddess of flowers and fruitful promise."


  1. How wonderful that such traditions can be traced back hundreds of years - perhaps the Garland Day has links with Beltane celebrations? I'd read about it - I think Flora Thompson may have mentioned it - but not heard about doing the rounds with a little wooden swallow. How magical is that? My heart always lifts when "our" barn swallows arrive here. The only bird-orientated celebration I know of is the Hunting the Wren/asking for a penny to bury the Wren.

    What a shame that such customs have now finally died out, apart from the resurrection of Maypole dancing in some places.

  2. What a lovely tradition. The joy of seeing swallows returning must surely predate Christian celebrations. I love the photo of Edwardian children gathering in the garden at Sandhouse.

    "Our" swallows came back last week. One arrived on the 25th and five more came during the following day. I always call out a "Welcome home!" to them. They are currently out there skimming the fields for insects and then swooping in through the stable doors where they are repairing last year`s nests.

  3. I had not heard of these May traditions before. I wonder if there is a record somewhere for future generations?

    I'm glad to hear your swallows have returned!


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