May Day, A long time ago

by Unknown

A long time ago a great many strange things used to happen on May Day. It used to be the jolliest day in the year; boys and girls used to be very happy looking forward to it, and as the day drew near, very busy in getting ready for the festival that took place.

I expect you have all heard of the May Queen. The prettiest little girl in the village was chosen 'Queen' by her companions. She was crowned with flowers, and sat on a throne in an arbour, while all the other children used to treat her just as if she were a real queen. In the evening they used to have a Maypole dance, while the little queen sat and watched them.

Another May custom was the Maypole. Other countries besides England have them. If you went to France, Holland, or Austria, you would see them there even now—much prettier than the English ones. The French ones are sometimes painted, and they have garlands round the top arranged on hoops, from which hang little golden balls. In Holland the Maypoles are quite different: they have a big flower-pot on top with a tree inside it; round the tree flags are arranged. The pole itself is painted blue and white. But the funniest Maypole of all is found in Austria. There is a flag at the top, and then a big bunch of green leaves and flowers, then more flags, and after that figures of little men and women and animals in wood nailed on to the pole so as to look as if they were climbing up it. Sometimes there is a stag nailed on, with a pack of dogs after it, all in wood.

In England, on the morning of May Day, the boys and girls used to get up very early and go into the fields, where they picked flowers and green branches from the trees and hedges. These they brought back to the village, and made into wreaths to trim the Maypole. When the pole was quite ready, the biggest boys fixed it in the ground. There were long garlands hanging from it, and each boy and girl took one and danced round. The dance was called the Maypole dance, and it had proper steps of its own, just like any other dance.

Those of you who live in London may have seen a funny-looking man walking about on May Day wrapped up in a bush, with flags and paper flowers on him, and making a noise with drums. If you ask who he is, you will be told that he is a chimney-sweep, called 'Jack-in-the-Green.' All chimney-sweeps used to keep May Day, and some do so still, and there is a story told to explain the custom.

A long time ago, little boys used to be sent up the chimneys to clean them. It was very dangerous, and they were often killed at their task. Of course, it was not easy to get little boys to be chimney-sweeps, and so wicked men used to steal little children from their homes for the purpose.

There once lived in London a very rich man, who had one little son, whom he loved very much. One day the child was missing, and nobody could find him, though a search was made everywhere, until at last his parents gave up all hope of ever seeing him again. Two years afterwards it happened that while the chimneys of the house were being swept, one of the servants went into the lady's room and found a little boy, all black with soot, lying on the clean white bed; he was fast asleep. She left him there and told her mistress. The lady came and looked at the boy, and, in spite of the soot and the dirty clothes, she recognised her little son, whom she had lost so long ago. A man had stolen him and made him become a little sweep; the boy was so young that the sweep fancied that after two years he would quite have forgotten his father and mother and home, and that it was quite safe to send him to the house when he was all black with soot.

So the little boy was sent down the chimney, for in those days they were cleaned from the top. When he got into the room, which was his mother's bedroom, he looked about and seemed to remember it. Then he knew that he was very cold and tired and hungry, and he went and lay down on the bed and fell fast asleep, till his mother woke him.

That is said to be the reason why the chimney-sweeps kept May Day—in remembrance of the boy who was stolen. But Jacks-in-the-Green are not often seen now, and that horrible way of sweeping the chimneys has disappeared.

If you do not see Jack-in-the-Green on May Day, you are sure to see the cart-horses all decked out in braid and ribbon of different colours; and if you live in London, you ought to go and see the procession of carts, which look very grand indeed, being decorated even more than the horses.