FlashBack Friday – Magdalen Bridge
Sadly, I have none of my own pictures for this post. Trust me, I wish I did.
When I was in college I did a junior year abroad. I went to St. Anne’s College, Oxford University to study British history and literature. It was an incredible experience and there are many aspects of that trip that I will discuss in future FlashBack Friday posts.
Today, the day after May Day, I want to talk about the ‘traditional’ Oxford May Day celebrations. (I say ‘traditional’ in inverted commas because there is a bit of doubt about this fact. While some claim the Magdalen Bridge jump is a tradition, others vehemently claim it began only as recently as the 1960s.) But first, let’s take a look at the May Day holiday (because I’m a hopeless pedant, that’s why).
May Day is traditionally marked as May 1st and is the half way point between the equinox and the solstice. Many countries have some form of May Day celebration. France celebrates May 1st with a tradition of presenting people with Lilies of the Valley as a sign of spring. It is believed that this tradition began with Charles IX in the mid 16th century. In Germany Walpurgisnacht is a a celebration on the night before May Day that includes dancing around a May Pole and lighting bonfires. Hawaii has its own version of May Day, called Lei Day, on which traditional island culture and cultural rites are celebrated. Ireland (and by Gaelic extension, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man) also has a may Day celebration. It is called Beltane. Beltane marks the beginning of the planting season and marks the opposite end of the ancient Celtic calendar, the fall being marked by Samhain. While the custom of celebrating Beltane has largely fallen out of practice, one can still see windowsills and doors decorated with May boughs. It is also still possible to spend an evening by the Beltane fire or decorating the rowan or hawthorn bush. And, of course, no Beltane night is complete without some drunken revelry.
And yes, I promise that I will soon talk about my years in Ireland during my FlashBack Friday ramblings.
Back to Oxford:
Oxford England has had a custom of celebrating May Morning for years. Of course, the night before May morning is spent (at least by the people *I* know) drinking in the long hours before sunrise at a pub lock-in. This, admittedly, was a tradition I was more than willing to play along with as it extended my birthday revelries. As the sun comes up, hung over, still drunk, or as sober as monks throngs of people gather on the High Street and the Magdalen bridge to hear the Magdalen College Choir sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus. It is a beautiful sound, as it should be. The Magdalen Choir has been singing the in celebration of May Day for over 500 years, obviously not with the same choir members. What is really amazing is the vast differences in types of people standing on the bridge listening in near silence to the music. Shoulder to shoulder you can find monks, punks, towns and gowns (terms used to refer to the rivalry between attendees of the University and the local population), people in faerie costumes or togas, women in formal gowns and men in tuxedos, and people of both sexes in pajamas.
But of course, that’s not the exciting part. Although the bridge jumping escapades may be fairly new in their execution, while I was living in Oxford in 94-95 they were in full force. Let me tell you, the river is not deep, but it sure as hell isn’t warm either. After a raucous night of drinking heavily I found myself amidst a crush of friends on the bridge neither seeing nor thinking clearly. Sure! Sounds like a great idea!
photo courtesy of BBC NEWS
Only one other time in my life was a shocked back into sobriety as quickly and that was also due to hitting icy cold water from a height of several meters… but that’s a story about Ireland and for another time.
The rest of the day was spent with the hair of the dog at various pubs around town, once we had all gone home to change into something a little less wet and cold followed by a long nap on the college green.
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