May Day on the Charles!

May Day, photograph by Mike Goren

All right, what are you doing on May 1, at 5:30 a.m.? I understand that you may be booked later on; after all, it’s one of the last days you can see “Geckos: Tails to Toepads” at the Museum of Science, and the siren song of the Boston Food Truck Tour is hard to resist. But what you really need to on May day is visit a park—specifically, the Charles River Basin. At dawn, the Cambridge cognoscenti will be on the banks of the Charles at the Weeks Footbridge, getting damp and slurping up caffeine and dancing in the annual May Day celebration.

For more than 35 years, the Newtowne Morris Men have been gathering Morris dancers, pagans, Cambridge folkies, and random passers-by to honor the coming of spring. For those of you unfamiliar with Boston’s folk dance scene, the Morris dancers are the people who dress up in white with jingle-bells around their shins and sort of hop around in dances “generally traced back to the Cotswold region of England,” as Muddy River Morris puts it. I’m not really sure why there are so many Morris dancers around here, but at least three different teams are planning to come to May Day this year. They’re just the sort of people you want around a Maypole, and someone always brings one to May Day.

Morris Dancers at Wells Cathedral

If you do go, you’ll have a chance to dance around the Maypole yourself and sing rousing songs with obscure pagan imagery. Keep in mind that for many pagans, May Day on the Charles is a religious holiday, not just an outburst of Cantabridgian eccentricity. Along with the dancers and shivering onlookers there will be women in long cloaks with blossoms in their hair, and men masked as the Green Man, and trees blooming by the water, and sunshine and grass, and blue sky. It’s odd and beautiful—unless it’s raining, in which case it’s drizzly and gray. It’s still awe-inspiring.

Meg Muckenhoupt is the author of Boston’s Gardens & Green Spaces.  She is a freelance environmental and travel writer. Her articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, the Boston PhoenixBoston Magazine, the Time Out Boston guide, and many other publications. She holds a certificate in Field Botany from the New England Wild Flower Society.

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