May Day, A long time ago
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
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
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.