For me, the concept of May Day will be forever associated with an annual ritual that took place at my infant school in Sidcup, a Kentish suburb of London.
Each May Day, or the closest school day to it, the girls from the oldest class became “May Maidens”. We had to dress in white frocks and the prettiest girl (how un-PC is that?!) was crowned May Queen. A determined band of mothers raided everyone’s gardens for roses and greenery to make into wreaths for the Maidens’ hair. They also wove two long floral ropes for the Maidens to carry.
The May Day Procession
For the May Day ceremony, the whole school turned out onto the field. ‘The Elizabethan Serenade’ played over the tannoy, while two lines of May Maidens, each carefully carrying one of the ropes, processed slowly to the far end of the field. Then they stood still while the May Queen and two attendants proceeded down the length of this floral aisle. Once the May Queen had taken her place on her throne, the Maidens sat down on the grass and the Headmistress addressed the gathered crowd of parents and children.
I don’t remember what the boys had to do, but they must have found the whole thing pretty dull. Not so the mothers, who ooh’d and aah’d as we walked by, snapping away with big, boxy cameras.
Those were gentler days, I think to myself, wishing that my own small daughter had the chance to take part in such an idyllic ritual. But then I realise with a start that the backdrop to this quaint ceremony was far from idyllic. For behind where the May Maidens sat, all along the edge of the school field, was a long row of air-raid shelters. Though the war was over long before we May Maidens were born , most of the adults watching our procession would have been all too familiar with the inside of an air-raid shelter.
A Sheltered Life?
These days it is hard to imagine that Health and Safety inspectors would allow any school to have such dark, dingy, unlit sheds on the school field. Risk assessment for air raid shelters? There’s an interesting thought. In those days, of course, children were allowed to enjoy a little danger, but I’m sure that’s not the only reason the shelters were retained. I suspect there was an inkling that we might needed to use them again. This was, after all, the 1960s. The Cold War was in full swing. Even as recently as 1980, the government was issuing its infamous “Protect and Survive” leaflets, telling us how to guard against a nuclear attack. (Unbelievably, top tips were to sit under the kitchen table or to take a door off its hinges if a table wasn’t to hand.)
We live in more peaceful times. My daughter may not get to be a May Maiden, but at least I don’t have to worry about a bomb falling on her school. All the same, she’d look awfully pretty with roses in her hair.
(This post originally appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser, May 2010)