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May Morning in Oxford

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Morris dancers waving their handkerchiefs. (Photograph by Emily Ainsworth)

In Oxford, that city of dreaming spires, there is a bewitched hour, before the moon has set and before the sun has risen, when thousands upon thousands of squiffy students, druids dressed as trees, and hanky-wielding Morris dancers line the ancient High Street. The rite they are observing — May Morning — is just as ancient.

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May Morning musicians (Photograph by Emily Ainsworth)

For more than five centuries, the first day of May has been met with the purest treble notes, as precocious choirboys sing out madrigals from the top of one of the city’s tallest towers and over the waiting crowds below. May Morning is the city’s unique take on May Day, a celebration of the glorious transition from primeval winter to a season of eternal evenings and Pimm’s-o’clock licentiousness.

And like all May Day celebrations, Oxford’s May Morning has pagan roots. When the puritans who ruled England in the 17th century noted a correlation between the first day in May, the tradition of scantily clad maidens prancing through the meadows with flowers in their hair, and a spate of babies born out of wedlock nine months later, they tried (and of course, failed) to outlaw the celebrations all together.

In Oxford, where the past echoes with every footstep, it is easy to forget which century you inhabit as you twist through the cobbled alleyways. In this respect, as Magdalen tower is shaken by its peal of bells, and as the choirboys sing out in Church Latin, the celebrations resonate and chime with times past.

If each and every human soul is buttoned up tight throughout the winter, spring and the ensuing summer bring a libertine, giddy recklessness.

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Revelers share a bottle of champagne in the early morning hours. (Photograph by Emily Ainsworth)

As teenagers, my friends and I would toast marshmallows over the braziers in the tumbledown courtyard of the 13th-century Turf Tavern as the stars wheeled overhead, then whirligig down the streets before dawn, shrieking like magpies, our school uniforms stuffed unceremoniously into supermarket bags. If we yawned our way through class later that day at school, I doubt our teachers noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Sunshine in northern Europe is as rare and as fleeting as a unicorn. I remember giving up, and staying in bed one May Morning, when a freak hail storm made the concept of greeting the spring’s beginning simply too cruel. While the dress code for these celebrations is free and easy – some come in black tie, others in pajamas — people rarely forget their rain jackets.

This year, the sun showed up in all its glory. The city’s ancient walls, neoclassical facades, and gothic steeples were licked with golden light, and the ice-cream vendors did a roaring trade.

As always, students had pushed aside concerns about the impending exam season to spend May Morning Eve at fancy-dress balls. And as the sun rose after a night of revelry, a rag-tag band with impressive facial topiary had the whole street dancing. Outside Brasenose College, plates of crumbly biscuits and extremely welcome cups of tea were doing the rounds – after all, the pubs had been doing a steady trade since the small hours.

But no matter the weather, by the time the shops have opened for the day, the streets have emptied, the cleaners have swept up, and you can be sure of one thing: Spring has begun.

National Geographic Young Explorer Emily Ainsworth was born and raised in Oxford, England. 

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