The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

May Day At Hitchin

William Hone, The Every Day Book, 2 Vols. London: William Tegg, 1825, 1827.

Volume 1, May 1

MAY-DAY AT HITCHIN, IN HERTFORDSHIRE.

For the Every-Day Book.

EXTRACT from a letter dated Hitchin,

May 1st, 1823.

On this day a curious custom is observed here, of which I will give you a brief account.

Soon after three o’clock in the morning a large party of the town—people, and neighbouring labourers, parade the town, singing the “Mayer’s Song.” They carry in their hands large branches of May, and they affix a branch either upon, or at the side of, the doors of nearly every respectable house in the town; where there are knockers, they place these branches within the handles; that which was put into our knocker was so large that the servant could not open the door till the gardener came and took it out. The larger the branch is, that is placed at the door, the more houourable to the house, or rather to the servants of the house. If in the Course of the year, a servant has given offence to any of the Mayers, then instead of a branch of May, a branch of elder, ‘with a hunch of nettles, is affixed to her door : this is considered a great disgrace, and the unfortunate subject of it is exposed to the jeers of her rivals. On May morning, therefore, the girls look with some anxiety for their May-branch, and rise very early to ascertain their good or ill fortune. The houses are all thus decorated by four o’clock in the morning. Throughout the day parties of these Mayer’s ale seen dancing and frolicking in various parts of the town. The group that I saw to-day, which remained in Bancroft for more than an hour, was composed as follows. First came two men with their faces blacked, one of them with a birch broom in his hand, and a large artificial hump on his back; the other dressed as a woman, all in rags and tatters, with a large straw bonnet oil, and carrying a ladle: these are called “mad Moll and her husband.” Next came two men, one most fantastically dressed with ribbons, and a great variety of gaudy coloured silk handkerchiefs tied round his arms from the shoulders to the wrists, and down his thighs and legs to the ankles he carried a drawn sword in his hand; leaning upon his arm was a youth dressed as a fine lady, in white muslin, and profusely bedecked from top to toe with gay ribbons: these, I understood, were called the “Lord and Lady” of the company; after these followed six or seven couples more, attired much in the same style as the lord and lady, only the men were without swords. When this group received a satisfactory contribution at any house, the music struck up from a violin, clarionet, and fife, accompanied by the long drum, and they began the merry dance, and very well they danced, I assure you; the men-women looked and footed it so much like real women, that I stood in great doubt as to which sex they belonged to, till Mrs. J.—— assured me that women were not permitted to mingle in these sports. While the dancers were merrily footing it, the principal amusement to the populace was caused by the grimaces and clownish tricks of mad Moll and her husband. When the circle of spectators became so contracted as to interrupt the dancers, then mad Moll’s husband went to work with his broom, and swept the road-dust, all round the circle, into the faces of the crowd, and when any pretended affronts were offered (and many were offered) to his wife, he pursued the offenders, broom fin hand; if he could not overtake them, whether they were males or females, he flung his broom at them. These flights and pursuits caused an abundance of merriment.

I saw another company of Mayers in Sun-street, and, as far as I could judge from where I stood, it appeared to be exactly the same description as that above- mentioned, but I did not venture very near them, for I perceived mad Moll’s husband exercising his broom so briskly upon the flying crowd, that I kept a respectful distance.

May-Day At Hitchin, In Herefordshire

The “Meyer’s Song” is a composition, or rather a medley, of great antiquity, and I was therefore very desirous to procure a copy of it; in accomplishing this, however, I experienced more difficulty than I had anticipated; but at length succeeded in obtaining it from one of the Mayers. The following is a literal transcript of it

The Mayer’s Song.

Remember us poor Mayers all,
And thus do we begin
To lead our lives in righteousness,
Or else we die in sin.

We have been rambling all this night,
And almost all this day,
And now returned back again
We have brought you a branch of May.

A branch of May we have brought you,
And at your door it stands,
It is but a sprout,
But it’s well budded out
By the work of our Lord’s hands.

The hedges and trees they are so green
As green as any leek,
Our heavenly Father He watered them
With his heavenly dew so sweet.

The heavenly gates are open wile,
Our paths are beaten plain,
And if a man be not too far gone,
He may return again.

The life of man is but a span,
It flourishes like a flower,
We are here to-day, and gone to-morrow,
And we are dead in an hour.

The moon shines bright, and the stars give a light,
A little before it is day,
So God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a joyful May.

William Chappell, The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time. London: Chappell & Co., 1859.

The May-day, or Mayers’ Song, which is printed by Hone, in his Every Day Book (i. 569), “as sung at Hitchin, in Hertfordshire,” is also to this tune. It is semi-religious medley, — a puritanical May-song (“of great antiquity,” says Hone), and begins thus :—

“Remember us poor Mayers all,
    And thus we do begin,
To lead our lives in righteousness,
    Or else we die in sin.
We have been rambling all the night,
    And almost all the day,
And now, returned back again,
    We have brought you a branch of May.”

The carol is sometimes sung in a major key, and sometimes in a minor; besides which difference, scarcely any two copies agree in the second part.

    See generally Christmas Carols - William Chappell.

Ralph Dunstan, The Cornish Song Book (London: Reid Bros., Ltd., 1929), p. 45:

Dr. Dunstan notes:

This carol is much like "The Old Waits Carol" [The Moon Shines Bright] and both came probably from the same original source. It is of great antiquity, and there are many variants of the words. Some of the verses given here (from Hone's The Every Day Book, Vol. I) were sung by my wife's mother and grandmother, who were of the Treloar family of Helston.

The carol may be sung to the tune on the preceding page [The Old Waits Carol, The Moon Shines Bright], or to the following beautiful one.

Dr. Dunstan also notes Tune: "Good-morrow 'tis St. Valentine's Day," a traditional melody sung by Ophelia in Shakespeare's HAMLET.

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