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'Round the maypole - round and round
Men and maids and children bound
Show'ring as they halt between
Honours on their May Day Queen.'


Spring, the sweet spring
Is the year's pleasant king,
Then blooms each thing,
Then maids dance in a ring.'
(Thomas Nash)




The first May Day

Knutsford's first official May Day was celebrated on Monday 2nd May, 1864, and was based on earlier traditions and festivities. At that time cattle were still being put out to pasture on Ley Day, May 12th, the old May Day before the calendar change of 1752. Knutsford earned it's 'Royal' title in 1887 when this was bestowed by the then Prince & Princess of Wales. Today, Knutsford has it's own Royal May Day Festival Committee and it's fame is worldwide, attracting thousands of visitors every year at the beginning of May.

Knutsford Royal May DayThe origins and traditions of May Day are old, varied and obscure. They encompass the rites and symbolism of ancient fertility cults, the Roman Spring festival of Floralia, Celtic Beltane, medieval traditions of morris dancing, and May games. Knutsford's own celebrations owe something to Cheshire traditions, although they have now evolved into their own style.  However, May Day focal points were the procession through the town and crowning of the May Queen, and dancing around the May pole itself.
 May Pole

Knutsford Royal May DayThe origins of the May pole hark back to ancient times when the spirits of trees and wells were worshipped. The Roman spring festival of Floralia, in honour of Flora, goddess of flowers, included decorating houses with fruit and flowers. This gave rise to the decorative maypole, the wearing of garlands, and to birching, where a branch would be hung on a front door in reference to the female occupant. The Green man, or Jack in the Green, another ancient fertility symbol, leads Knutsford's modern day procession. A sculpture of him can be seen at Knutsford's Heritage Centre.

Knutsford Royal May DayKnutsford's own celebrations have changed and developed over the years since 1864 when it's rural attractions pulled in city dwellers who would come to see cows and cowmen, sheep and shepherds, milkmaids, village weddings, and gypsy Kings and Queens. Also taking part in the activities were popular and well known characters, particularly those of the Robin Hood legend, whose personalities had ancient and symbolic meanings and connections to May Day. There were also May games, mummers' plays, singing and dancing.

Modern May Day

As years went by the rural style gave way to a more carnival atmosphere. Today you can hope to see a procession which includes morris dancers, brass bands, the Cheshire Wheelmen on antique bicycles, a whole host of characters including a town crier and Highwayman Higgins, and a Royal May Queen accompanied by foot guards, ladies in waiting, and a crown bearer. One tradition which has now become almost unique to Knutsford's celebrations and is still perpetuated is the custom of "sanding", whereby the pavements of the town are decorated with motto's and patterns in coloured sand. One local legend refers to King Canute for its origin, who is supposed to have wished a bridal couple as many children as grains of sand.  Sanding was then a wedding custom before it became a May Day event in Knutsford.

Special thanks to Knutsford's resident Historian Joan Leach for textual and pictorial sources.  For a more detailed look at Knutsford's May Day traditions see 'The History of Knutsford's Royal May Day' available from Knutsford Heritage Centre.