May day has always seemed to me to be a day in the calendar that cries out to be celebrated. It is about this time of year that the evenings become light for long enough to enjoy. If we are lucky we can pack away our winter coats and jumpers for the year. A bank holiday moved around from year to year to suit commercial requirements has never really seemed adequate to it. Even the bank holiday seems to have been conceded rather grudgingly. I am old enough to remember the first one. I seem to remember a conservative politician suggesting dropping it in favour of a day to commemorate the battle of Trafalgar.
There aren’t many folk traditions that have survived to mark May Day, though some people have tried to revive or create them. I remember running into some Morris dancers who told me they had tried to start welcoming in May at dawn by dancing near the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk figure on the South Downs. They had been rather put out to arrive in the car park only to find that some Druids were already there.
But there is one place that has a long tradition of marking the first day of May. In Oxford at 6.00 am choristers climb to the top of the tower of Magdalen College and sing a short set of madrigals. Crowds gather to hear it, and then the pubs open and various unconventional things occur. Morris dancing rubs cheeks with new age stuff involving drums and wearing foliage. Even jazz is tolerated.
So when business happened to take me near Oxford on the 1st of May I set my alarm and arrived early enough to spend a few hours in the city enjoying the spectacle. I had been several times before but not for a few years. I don’t remember the singing being amplified before – but maybe I just wasn’t close enough to realise previously. This year I got right down near to the bridge and very close to the tower itself.
The turnout of the crowd was very large. There were plenty of people who looked like students and a fair smattering of foreign languages. And there were also people in costumes who had come to mark the event. But I think the vast majority were simply young people who lived in Oxford who were simply out to have some fun.
The madrigals were listened to politely enough and each one got a round of applause. But there was also a prayer. It was an inoffensive and mercifully short enough one calling on God to bless everyone. It was a standard enough format so it was easy to tell when it was building up to the final amen. I prepared to ostentatiously not join in the chorus of answering amens. But nobody responded. The crowd didn’t even pause – it was as if nobody knew that it is customary to repeat the amen at the end of a prayer.
I found that really interesting. When Rowan Williams recently announced that Britain was a post Christian country, I think he was spot on. I don’t like to think of myself as being more out of touch than a former Archbishop of Canterbury, but it was a surprise to me to find such widespread indifference to a religious occasion. I don’t remotely mind this. I regard Christianity in much the same way as I do most of history. It is interesting to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. The sooner it becomes an historical anachronism and ceases to be an actual force in society the better in my book. But I had not realised just how far we have got in that direction.