On Wednesday, May 23, New Westminster will celebrate its 142nd May Day on the city’s time-honoured gathering grounds at Queen’s Park. This long-standing tradition in the Royal City is a harbinger of summer for thousands of school kids who watch the crowning of the May Queen in her white gown, performed on the close-cropped green fields of the baseball stadium. It’s a day for children to eat from ice cream cups with flat wooden spoons and to dream of the sunny and free days of summer holidays that lie only a few weeks ahead.
Dancing with stiff shoes
As a young boy growing up in New Westminster, I recall my stiff leather shoes that pinched and squeaked as I and dozens of my classmates performed heel-and-toe steps to foreign sounding, but hummable, music. I later learned these melodies were composed by the likes of William Byrd and Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, composers who knew how to produce a good, lusty-sounding dance tune.
Learning circle dances for the iconic pagan fertility symbol of the maypole continues to be a rite of passage for all elementary school students in New Westminster. In 1971, the spectacle was viewed by two very special guests, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who attended during their royal tour of British Columbia during its centennial year. This exclusive CBC archival footage shows May Queen Linda McRory welcoming the royals, followed by Grade 4 students dancing around the maypole to the traditional jig, "Come, Lasses and Lads."
New Westminster, a city of rich history, held its first May Day in 1870, a year before British Columbia joined the Dominion of Canada. The musical repertoire and dances were codified later, in 1915, when a young school teacher from England named Beatrice Cave-Browne-Cave
arrived on the scene, eager to put into practice some of the learnings she had received from the English folk music and dance revivalist, Cecil Sharp
. Cave-Browne-Cave’s enthusiasm wasn’t initially met with open arms, though. It took two years of lobbying city council before she got council's OK to reshape the tradition into a more authentic form. The words to "Come, Lasses and Lads," one of the pieces now indelibly written into the city’s May Day script, capture the joy and abandon of the day.
"Come, lasses and lads,
Take leave of your dads,
And away to the maypole hie;
For every he
Has got him a she,
And the minstrel's standing by;
For Willie has gotten his Jill,
And Johnny has got his Joan,
To jig it, jig it, jig it,
Jig it up and down."
Choosing a May queen
In its earliest days, the selection of the May Queen was done at the local fire hall. Traditionally, the fire captain would then approach the father of the prospective May Queen to ask permission for his daughter to take on the responsibility of committing to the important year-long duties of the Queen of the May. Today, the selection of the queen is much more democratic with random draws deciding the choice of May Queen and her court. As much as some traditions have changed, the dances and music have remained very much the same for close to 100 years. "Gathering Peascods," an English-sounding tune, is thought to have been written by the Dutch Renaissance composer, Sweelinck. You can hear it following the prelude of "Gathering Nuts in May" in this video.
May Day carries on May 23
May Day celebrations for 2012 get underway at Queen’s Park Stadium in New Westminster starting at 11:15 a.m. on Wednesday, May 23. Musical accompaniment for all the pomp and procession will be handled by the junior and senior bands of the award-winning NWSS music program under the direction of Kelly Proznick and Steve Clements.
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