May Morning Oxford in the time of Covid-19

Magdalen College Tower, Oxford








Or …. how to celebrate the traditional May Day celebrations in 2020 while under lockdown

If you are familiar with the old customs in the City of Oxford, you will know the crowds who gather on Magdalen Bridge early on May 1st every year. They are there to listen to the choir of Magdalen College welcome the month of May (and afterward perhaps do a little drinking).

May Morning is a ritual that probably goes back to pagan times, but remains popular in the city as a way to mark the beginning of May and the start of summer. The choir sing (beautifully) from the top of the tower to the people below, some of whom will have stayed out all night in order to get themselves in the mood.

In past years, the more adventuresome (or drunk) among the students would have accompanied the ceremony by jumping off the bridge into the river Cherwell below. However since the river’s depth at this point means that you’ll barely get your knees wet, such foolhardiness has brought too much custom for the local hospitals and has had to be banned.

Mad jumpers aside, May Morning has for years been a wonderful way to mark the season’s change from winter and early spring, and to welcome in the start of summer. In 2020, unfortunately, the Covid-19 crisis intervened. The size of the crowds cramped between the narrow parapets of Magdalen Bridge would have made social distancing impossible. May Morning, therefore, was cancelled.

Not to be beaten however, the good people of the city and the university came up with their own solutions to maintaining the tradition, without offending the social-distancing regulations implemented to maintain public health. For Magdalen College choir, the choristers each sang in their own home while being conducted, online, by the choirmaster in the college grounds.

The result came out surprisingly well, as can be seen here:


Other musical groups within the city came up with their own online contributions. For example this specially written madrigal for May Day from the ‘Early Whirly’ group of musicians, who normally play on the steps of the Clarendon building that morning:


Meanwhile in Wolvercote (an Oxford suburb), one Morris team offered their own ‘socially-distanced’ version of the Morris dance to welcome the spring:


So, while we are still most of us isolated from each other indoors, and champing at the bit to restart normal life, a few of the more enterprising managed to find a way to beat the virus and observe the ancient customs, if by dint of modern technology.

The results do them credit. It just goes to show, you can’t keep an Oxford man (or woman) down.

© Philip Hunt, 2020.

More information

May Morning in 2018


Morris Dancing in Oxford 2008


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