Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Morris dancer at Oxford's May Day celebration

SUMMER IS ICUMMIN IN  continued...
On this occasion, dotted among the crowd were teams of Morris Dancers dressed in traditional costume; white shirts, white trousers, heavy boots or clogs with rows of bells around their legs. Headgear, depending on which dance group they were affiliated with, varied from floppy felt hats, bowler hats, black top hats, and straw hats decorated with fresh lilac, daffodils, peach blossom and early summer roses. The Morris Dancers’ traditional dancing goes back more than 600 years.

As the crowd became restless a musician struck up the fiddle and dancing ensued. Jack in the Green, a figure who accompanies the Morris Men on their dances, stood motionless beside me, and I suspected that I was being observed. The man was invisible beneath a tree-shaped arrangement threaded with greenery. As I photographed the Morris Men, a voice came from deep within the evergreen. “When am I going to see the photographs you took of us last time, Anne Gordon?”

I pulled some of the leaves aside and peered into the darkness and the face of Peter Lund, a don from Christ Church who had loaned me a book on the history of the Morris Dancers.

As 6 a.m. approached, a choir of Magdalen men and teen boys emerged with their singing master onto the sloping roof at the top of Magdalen tower. For more than 500 years this ceremony, or one very similar, had been re-enacted right there on the banks of the River Cherwell. It was originally a pagan tradition, culminating in the crowning of a Summer Queen to honour the spirit of vegetation.

Suddenly a splash of light touched the ancient stone of Magdalen tower. All eyes turned towards Christ Church meadow where the first rays of sun pierced the dawn shadows. There was an expectant hush. Who would have thought that there were thousands of people beside the river at that moment? Then, from high above us, soprano voices burst into song; a Latin hymn followed by a lively rendition of “Summer is Icummen In.”

For a moment my mind flashed back centuries to the millions of people who had welcomed past summers in this same place.

As the singing faded, enthusiastic applause greeted the deafening peals of church bells reverberating across the city. With summer appropriately ushered in, each group of Morris Men, like pied pipers, drew the crowds behind them as they danced along cobbled streets to the music of fiddle, pipe and drum. Other entertainers had gathered at their traditional venue beside the Sheldonian Theatre, Fire-eaters spewed flames. Jugglers and gypsy bands entertained the crowds and a Morris Man encouraged children o try their hands at weaving the red, white and blue ribbons as they danced around the maypole.

Was this the 20th century? I felt as if I had stepped back in time.

Morris dancers celebrating May Day in Oxford
The Morris Men clambered onto a raised platform opposite the theatre. Then to the music of a fiddle, they launched into the intricate formations that make up their dance. Heavy boots beat rhythmically on the ground, sticks crashed together and handkerchiefs fluttered like butterflies as the men bobbed and weaved from one step to the next.

As the sun climbed higher, weary crowds drifted away. Two university undergraduates in naval dress uniform sat befuddled on the sidewalk as I passed on my way home. One made a half-hearted attempt to summon a passing taxi, the other, smiling contentedly, slumped in a heap beside his empty beer glass.

Would they, with others of their year, return to Oxford to celebrate in the future, encouraged by fond memories of that May Morning so long ago?
Photo copyright Anne Gordon
Posted by Anne Gordon on Thursday, 28th November, 2013


At December 21, 2013 at 11:41 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi Anne, nice to read your travel experiences. wow, hope someday can to watch the dance. Ohya, have you ever been to Indonesia? I live in Indonesia especially in Aceh. I suggest you to my hometown one-day, yeah if you ever heard about tsunami in Indonesia, that was happened in my hometown, aceh

At December 1, 2016 at 3:44 PM , Blogger James Brown said...

This is my first t e i visit here. I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! keep up the good work.


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