May Day Traditions of picnics, dancing, and baskets - The British Hamper Company

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May Day: Perfect Picnics and Bountiful Baskets

05 Apr 2024

Although technically on 1st May, May Day is often celebrated on the first Monday of May in the UK. It’s an occasion for villages to gather and celebrate the arrival of spring with dancing, picnics, and traditions!



The history of May Day, and why we celebrate it, is an ancient concept. May Day, and the idea of celebrating the arrival of Spring, can be traced all the way back to Ancient Rome (753 BCE!). In Roman times, spring festivities took place between 28th April and 3rd May in honour of the goddess Flora – the Roman goddess of flowers and spring. The celebrations included theatrical performances and athletic games, as well as some more chaotic traditions like throwing vegetables and releasing wild animals into crowds.

Thankfully May Day traditions became a little less dangerous with the passage of time and in the early medieval period, rural celebrations included bonfires and wild flower decorations. In the Gaelic world, these celebrations of spring were part of the Beltane festival and they died out by the middle of the 20th century, only kept alive in Wales.

In 1978, May Day was officially instituted as a bank holiday set to fall on the first Monday of May each year (yay!).



In addition to keeping many spring traditions alive throughout the 20th century, Wales is also considered to be the origin place of the maypole with records dating back to the 14th century.

This mesmerising practice of dancers weaving ribbon in and out to create intricate patterns later became a way for the children to be involved with the festivities and many primary schools across the UK now participate in their local maypole dance.


May Day Baskets

In 19th century America, an adorable tradition of gifting May baskets developed. These baskets and cones were often handmade from colourful paper and would contain spring flowers and sweets. The baskets would then be left on the doorstep of their intended recipient as the giver would knock on their door, yell ‘May basket!’ and then run away.

To make your own May basket, all you really need is some paper and you can fill your paper cone with paper flowers! Alternatively, for a more modern take on the May Day tradition, you could gift someone a gourmet picnic hamper.


Morris Dancing

Morris dancing is a traditional English folkdance often performed at village celebrations such as a May Fayre (and sometimes Christmas too!). The earliest references to this dance come from the 15th century and it became a common part of entertainment for the lower classes. With Henry VIII’s invention of the court masque, the dance became increasingly popular among the upper classes too.

There are many different styles of Morris dancing but all are a wonderful and lively spectacle. At a May Day fayre, the types you’re most likely to see are the Border Morris and the Cotswold Morris. Border Morris dancers wear dark tattered coats with bright ribbon and intricate hats, sometimes decorated with bells that add to the rhythm and energy of the routine. They might also carry sticks that they hit against each other to match the beat of the music; it’s a looser, more wild version of the dance, and is an absolute joy to watch. Cotswold Morris dancers often wear white with added ribbons, waistcoats and decorated hats. Their dances most commonly involve handkerchief twirling and, similar to Border Morris, sticks.

If you spot Morris dancers at your May Day celebrations, they’re definitely worth watching!



A May Day picnic is the perfect way to welcome in the spring! In the UK, the average person picnics at least three times a year and May Day is the perfect opportunity for a family picnic as many of the festivities will already be taking place outside. All you need is a scenic location (although not required!), a picnic basket, and some picnic food. The food is often sandwiches, salads, sausage rolls, and scotch eggs – essentially whatever you can eat with your hands!

For an easy and delectable picnic, check out our range of gourmet picnic hampers!


Obby Oss

A more unique tradition, held in Cornwall, is the Obby Oss tradition. This is when a local person will dress in flowing robes and a caricature mask of a horse (see the photo below, taken in 1975 by Dave Walking).

The festivities start at midnight on April 30th when townsfolk gather to sing in the streets, moving through the village of Padstow until the early morning. The village is then decorated with flowers and branches ready for the obby oss parade. Since 1919, there are two oss’s that participate in the event; the Old obby oss, and the Blue Ribbon obby oss. These two oss dance around the streets with a group of followers and a ‘teaser’ who dances around the oss while leading it through the streets. These parades take place at 2pm and 6pm and end around the maypole.

Much like other May Day traditions, it’s a lively and fun community event, steeped in a rich history.


Does your village have any interesting May Day traditions?

I hope this blog was helpful in sharing the joys of May Day and encouraging you to participate in your local celebrations this year.

Don’t forget to check out our picnic hampers to complete the occasion!


National Trust – The History of May Day

NPR – A Forgotten Tradition – May Baskets

Britannica – Morris Dance

Morrisfed – What Is Morris Dancing?

Celtic English – Creating the Perfect Picnic

The Padstow Obby Oss - About