Mayday Morning in Cambridge

The time is about quarter past five on the morning of the First of May. To the east pink tendrils of dawn intrude on the deep blue-black of the hemisphere above, mixing with the multicolored glows of the streetlamps. The early morning stillness is only rarely disturbed by the sound of automobiles on the nearby Memorial Drive which will be bumper to bumper with harried commuters in a few short hours. A light mist floats above the Charles River unruffled yet by oars, for it is still too dark for the crew teams to row. But a curious sound comes from the distance - Morris bells, and soon from all directions people dressed in white are converging on this spot by the riverbank.

They come bearing hankies, sticks, musical instruments, bells, decorated hats, colorful ribbons and other paraphernalia of the Morris dance. There are recognizable patterns in the dress - baldricks, tabards, waistcoats of a variety of colors and decoration, representing most of the local teams. But not only Morris folk - there are many others, some recognized as Contra dancers, English Country dancers, folk song enthusiasts, other musicians, callers, SCA members from the local Barony of Carolingia, plus folk unaffiliated who show up year after year. The better prepared may have a thermos of coffee or other beverage to ward off the chill, for this is early for most of them to be awake and the world has had all night to cool off.

By half-past-five the Maypole has arrived, brought by members of the Newtowne Morris Men and the assembled faithful have gathered in a ring around it. The May Morning Songbooks, referred to as the hymnal by some, are passed around and the singing begins.

Soon the sun comes up, 05:39 Eastern Daylight Time at this location, and is greeted by cheers, then more singing, Morris dancing, a Maypole dance, and Sellenger's Round for all.

The crowd continues to grow, then before 6 AM all form up for a procession. Led by the Maypole bearer and musicians playing melodeons, fiddles, pipe-and-tabor, recorders, whistles, drums and other instruments, all dance across Memorial Drive and through the streets onto a green beside some of the Harvard houses for more of the same. As the sun gets higher still all dance again through the first wave of the traffic rush to Holyoke Center right in Harvard Square.

After yet more dancing, singing, Maypole weaving and Morris dances it is getting close to 8 AM and dancers with early obligations take their leave to return to the mundane world. Others have declared this day a "religious holiday" and will retire from Harvard Square to a less urban site where they continue to dance and sing and make merry past noon.

Though this tradition of dancing may be called new by some, it has been practiced every year, rain or shine, enthusiastically even through downpours and snow flurries since the mid 1970s. Sometimes the weather is friendlier than other years, but an amazing number of people turn out even when the musicians must wear gloves and willing volunteers hold umbrellas over the fiddles.

You can see a short video with highlights of May Morning 2005 via YouTube

Historical Note

It was not all that far from here in 1628 that Thomas Morton set up a Maypole on his plantation of Merry-Mount and welcomed all who would to participate in the celebration of the May, as described in his book New England Caanan. Other colonies in Massachusetts, the Pilgrims of Plimoth and the Puritans of Boston, were not at all happy to see such wanton festivity with dance and song and freely flowing Ale so they dispatched parties of armed men to chop down his Maypole and show him the error of his ways, sending him back to England in chains. Perhaps that is why the dancing is now done on the more-tolerant Cambridge side of the river?

Other Mayday pages

Cambridge is not the only place where Morris Dancers rise with the sun on this day. Here are some other Mayday pages found on the Web.


Black Jokers | Morris Dancing

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Original Apr 1, 1996
Last Modified: Apr 29 08:15 EDT 2011 / Ishmael the Fiddler