- ‘The first of May! There is a merry freshness in the sound, calling to our minds a thousand thoughts of all that is pleasant in nature and beautiful in her most delightful form‘ is a quotation from Sketches by Boz, Scenes, Chapter 20 (The First of May).
Description of joyous thoughts of the first of May, a time when nature was celebrated with festivities to mark a halfway point between spring and summer. The quotation comes at the start of The First of May, a sketch originally published under the title ‘A Little Talk about Spring, and the Sweeps‘ that Charles Dickens wrote in May 1836, after a visit to witness May Day celebrations in the Battle-bridge (now Kings Cross) area) of London. The sketch first appeared in the third edition of Chapman and Hall’s The Library of Fiction, or Family Story-teller under the title A Little Talk about Spring, and the Sweeps. It was revised and renamed for inclusion in the second series of Sketches by Boz.
The First of May bemoans the decline of May Day celebrations, once an important festival throughout the country, but by the early part of the nineteenth had been appropriated by chimney-sweeps who would parade in costumes, collecting money as they passed.
Several commentators wrote about the demise of May Day festivities around the time Charles Dickens wrote this sketch. Two years previously, the author Leigh Hunt, (who later became friends with Dickens and was the inspiration for the character Harold Skimpole in Bleak House), wrote that ‘the only remnant of the old festivities now left us, like a sorry jest and a smeared face, is that melancholy burlesque the chimney-sweepers‘.
Background: May Day celebrations.
May Day festivities have been celebrated in the U.K. (and also many parts of Europe) for over 2,000 years, going back to Pagan and Roman times. The Celts celebrated the festival of Beltane on the first of May to mark a halfway point between spring and summer, whilst Roman society celebrated their Floralia, or festival of Flora, the goddess of flowers, to hail the return of spring between 28 April and 3 May. Over time, a number of traditional festivities developed including Morris dancing, a dressed-up Jack-in-the-Green character and dancing around a maypole. Young people would rise early to collect spring flowers, branches and greenery from local woodlands and decorate their houses and communities with garlands. A Jack in the Green—a man decorated with green foliage and flowers—would lead a May Day procession through a town or village, accompanied by musicians and dancers. This would be followed by dancing around a Maypole—a tall wooden log decorated with hanging ribbons—erected on a village green. Many May Day festivities, including the use of the Maypole, were banned following the English Civil War when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans viewed them as immoral. Following the Restoration period, people put up maypoles as a sign of loyalty to the crown, but May Day festivities began to die out over subsequent years. By the mid to late eighteenth-century, milkmaids appropriated the festival to parade themselves, adorned with garlands of flowers. By the early nineteenth-century the milkmaids had given way to chimney sweeps.
The only remnant of the old festivities now left us, like a sorry jest and a smeared face, is that melancholy burlesque the chimney-sweepers,—melancholy, however, not to themselves, and so far, to nobody else; neither would we have them brow-beaten, but made as merry as possible on this their only holiday;—but it is melancholy to think, that all the mirth of the day is left to their keeping. If their trade were a healthy one, it would be another matter; if we were even sure, that they were not beaten and bruised when they got home, it would be something. As it is, we can only give money to them (if one has it) and wish them a less horrible mixture of tinsel, dirty skins, dance, and disease. Nevertheless, the dance is something: sacred be the dance, and the desecration thereof; and sacred the laugh of the frightfully red lips amidst that poisonous black.Leigh Hunt’s London Journal. Wednesday, 30 April 1834 (on May Day festivities).
- In the novel Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens adds the imagery of a Jack in the Green to a scene with the simile ‘the dress went down the staircase like a richly brocaded Jack in the Green, and nobody knew what sort of small person carried it‘ (Book 1, Chapter 21).
Taken from the following passage in the sketch The First of May:
The first of May! There is a merry freshness in the sound, calling to our minds a thousand thoughts of all that is pleasant in nature and beautiful in her most delightful form. What man is there, over whose mind a bright spring morning does not exercise a magic influence—carrying him back to the days of his childish sports, and conjuring up before him the old green field with its gently-waving trees, where the birds sang as he has never heard them since—where the butterfly fluttered far more gaily than he ever sees him now, in all his ramblings—where the sky seemed bluer, and the sun shone more brightly—where the air blew more freshly over greener grass, and sweeter-smelling flowers—where everything wore a richer and more brilliant hue than it is ever dressed in now! Such are the deep feelings of childhood, and such are the impressions which every lovely object stamps upon its heart! The hardy traveller wanders through the maze of thick and pathless woods, where the sun’s rays never shone, and heaven’s pure air never played; he stands on the brink of the roaring waterfall, and, giddy and bewildered, watches the foaming mass as it leaps from stone to stone, and from crag to crag; he lingers in the fertile plains of a land of perpetual sunshine, and revels in the luxury of their balmy breath. But what are the deep forests, or the thundering waters, or the richest landscapes that bounteous nature ever spread, to charm the eyes, and captivate the senses of man, compared with the recollection of the old scenes of his early youth? Magic scenes indeed; for the fancies of childhood dressed them in colours brighter than the rainbow, and almost as fleeting!
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