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May Day Traditions

To think about the past and how traditions are handed down from generation to generation.

by Kate Fleming

Suitable for Whole School (Pri)


To think about the past and how traditions are handed down from generation to generation. To consider whether today we are protecting our history and keeping it alive while developing our culture. To appreciate and value the wealth of experience associated with age.

Preparation and materials

  • Read through the story in advance. If appropriate, involve other readers, giving them different roles in the story.

  • As an optional extra, you might want to think about recreating the May Day celebrations in the story.



Introduce and read the following story. Explain that the story is set just after the Second World War.

I'm to be Queen of the May, Granny!
by Kate Fleming

'It's May 1st on Tuesday,' said Mrs Braithwaite, 'and as you know our school is going to celebrate May Day this year. This is the first time we've been able to do this since the war ended. Shirley, are you listening to me? There's no need to look round, Shirley, there's only one Shirley Pepper in this classroom.'

Shirley wasn't listening, Mrs Braithwaite was, as always, correct. Shirley was feeling round the small trapdoor that was just where she was sitting on the wooden classroom floor.

'Everyone cross their legs, put their hands in their laps, and sit up straight,' continued Mrs Braithwaite. 'We are going to talk about May Day; Shirley, hands in lap please. You're fidgety Phil who can't sit still this morning.'

'If only she knew,' thought Shirley. 'This trapdoor in the floor is all about May Day!' Ever since Granny Daisy had told her about the May Day celebrations when she was a girl, Shirley had thought about it and pictured the scene in her mind. Herself, Shirley Pepper, as May Queen, just as Granny Daisy had been 60 years ago, in 1885.

'Now, children, we'll need to think carefully about costumes for the May Day coronation party. We'll have to search around for any bits and pieces we could use. Make and mend, remake, make do. We don't want to use any of our precious clothing coupons, do we?'

'Won't have to,' thought Shirley, as she seated herself firmly on the trapdoor. 'If I am to be Queen of the May, I have Granny Daisy's costume all ready to wear.'

Granny Daisy's May Queen costume had been wrapped up in old, yellowing tissue paper since 1885, just waiting for its next performance. Shirley had tried it on. 'You look so beautiful,' Granny Daisy had said. 'It takes me back. It could be me.' Then she had whizzed off to the kitchen to see to the potatoes.

'Right, I'm waiting for SOMEONE to sit still before I go on. Yes, Shirley, it's you I'm talking to, so don't look at Arthur. Sit still, Arthur Cragg, this isn't an excuse for you to wriggle about. Is there something special about that bit of the floor?' she asked sarcastically. Shirley felt the edge of the trapdoor.

'Please Mrs Braithwaite, I'm sitting on the maypole trapdoor. In Victorian times, when my Granny Daisy was at this school, they opened it up like this and slotted the maypole in so they could practise their dancing, and dance indoors if it was wet.'

There was a long silence, while Mrs Braithwaite glared at Arthur Cragg and at the same time thought about what Shirley had said.

'Thank you, Shirley, that is really interesting. For someone who is such a fidget you do say some interesting things. Perhaps we need to get Granny Daisy into school to help us with our May Day celebrations? What do you think, children?'

Everyone murmured sounds of approval, even Arthur Cragg, but Shirley hadn't anticipated the change of plan. 'She's very shy, Mrs Braithwaite, and hates being important. I think old people like to be on their own.'

Shirley was grasping at straws. Granny Daisy coming into the classroom talking to Mrs Braithwaite and the likes of Arthur Cragg! No thank you! Granny was special, just for her.

'Well, that's where you're wrong, Shirley Pepper,' said Mrs Braithwaite. 'I shall call round tonight and ask Granny Daisy to come in to school.'

The bell went and Shirley grabbed her coat off the peg and rushed back to 5 Huntingtower Road. She had to get to Granny Daisy before Mrs Braithwaite. Granny was just making a cup of tea when Shirley rushed in. 'Mrs Braithwaite wants you to come in and talk about May Day. I'm sorry, really sorry, I told everyone about the maypole trapdoor and it all went wrong from there.'

'What are you in such a pickle about, my beautiful Shirley Pepper? That's no problem, I'll talk to your class about May Day. Don't worry, I'll still keep some secrets for you.'

So Granny Daisy came into school and told the class about her coronation, when she became May Queen. How she was draped in garlands of flowers and had risen at dawn to wash her face in the fresh morning dew to give her a good complexion. She showed them how to dance round the maypole, which was now set up in the classroom using the special trapdoor. How the first dance plaits the ribbons attached to the pole and how the second one unplaits them. She sang:

Come lassies and lads, get leave of your dads
And away to the maypole hie.
For every fair has a sweetheart there
And the fiddler standing by.

And it wasn't in the least bit embarrassing. She told them about Grampa Frank morris dancing. How his troupe stamped their feet, jingled their bells and waved their huge handkerchiefs to help the mighty sun rise into summer. Shirley was so proud. Granny Daisy was a star.

'Old people', thought Shirley, 'are amazing; they know so much.'

The preparations were under way, but still the nagging question rattled around Shirley's idle thoughts. Who was going to be Queen of the May? Valerie Shelley? I don't think so! Pauline Dobson? No! Monica Fairlight? Couldn't possibly!

After register on the Friday morning before May Day week, Mrs Braithwaite settled everyone down and began a long rigmarole about how difficult it had been to choose a May Queen. The panel, apparently made up of Mr Brinsley the caretaker, Mavis and Joyce the dinner ladies, and the Vicar, had put a lot of effort into …

'Just get on with it,' thought Shirley. 'Let's get the agony over and done with.' She looked round at the other candidates. Valerie was looking extremely confident as she shook her golden ringlets, Pauline Dobson fingered her long thick plaits and Monica Fairlight gazed out of the window. Shirley focused on the floor and in particular at the base of the maypole.

'The Queen of the May', said Mrs Braithwaite, 'is Shirley Pepper'. Shirley's stomach did a somersault and her face went very hot. 'Valerie, Monica and Pauline will be her attendants.'

The rest of the day passed in a haze of excitement and Shirley couldn't wait to go home and tell Granny Daisy the good news. When she burst through the door Granny Daisy was putting the finishing touches to the maypole cake. She had saved her food coupons and her sweet coupons to make the sponge cakes and buy the stick of barley sugar for the pole and the icing sugar for the green icing, and had managed to iron some old ribbons. 'I'm going to be Queen of the May, Granny!'

Granny Daisy was delighted. 'Well done, my Shirley, you will be the best Queen of the May since I wore the crown all those years ago.'

The rest of the evening was spent round at Granny's, finishing the cake and the ankle-bells for the maypole dancers. Mrs Cragg came round to help with the hobby-horse costume and brought an old broom handle which she had found in her back yard to start them off. Mrs Braithwaite had relented and allowed Arthur Cragg to be the hobby-horse in the parade. 'Well suited,' thought Shirley and smiled to herself.

May Day dawned bright and sunny. It was a perfect day and everyone had a wonderful time. 'How was I as Queen of the May, Granny Daisy?' asked Shirley as they walked home. 'You were the best, Shirley, you were just as good as I was, perhaps even better!'

She put her arms round Shirley and hugged her, then hurriedly got her best handkerchief out of her handbag and turned away. 'Mr Worthington's late daffodils have been so good this year,' said Granny Daisy, looking into No. 7's garden. 'She needed to change the subject,' thought Shirley. 'Bless her!'

Time for reflection

Dear God,
Help us to look to the past in order to cope with the present and plan for the future.
Give us the understanding to appreciate the older members of our families
and value their memories.


''Tis the gift' (Come and Praise, 97)

Curriculum links

History, PSHE, English

Publication date: May 2001   (Vol.3 No.5)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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