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Posts Tagged ‘May Day’

It’s finally glorious spring here in Cambridge, and everything – from the azaleas to the tulip magnolias to the shrubs lining the sidewalks near my office – is blooming. The tiny sunken garden next to my building is filled with tulips and flowering trees; the planters outside the nearby Episcopal church are bursting with daffodils. And the other day, the Internet was blooming with people calling “Happy May Day!” to one another.

I didn’t celebrate, or know anyone who celebrated, May Day when I was growing up – I’d read about Maypoles, but they seemed mostly an historical concept. I don’t really celebrate it now. But like so many other things, May Day took on a new significance during the year I lived in Oxford.

magdalen tower oxford may day

Since time immemorial (or since 1509), a group of boy choristers from Magdalen College School have rung in the month of May at dawn, from the top of Magdalen College tower (which sits at one end of the bridge spanning the River Cherwell), with a few a cappella madrigal songs. This coincides with the end-of-term balls at many Oxford colleges, so much of the audience consists of bleary-eyed students wearing crumpled ball gowns and slightly askew tuxedos, the girls’ elaborate coiffures slipping out of their perfect arrangements. Crowds gather on either side of Magdalen Bridge in the chilly blue dawn; jackets are necessary (unless, I suppose, you’ve been out drinking all night).

May Day is also my friend (and Oxford housemate) Lizzie’s birthday, and that year, it was the day of the student end-of-term ball at my beloved church. Both Lizzie and I had planned to go (and bought new dresses for the occasion). Although we knew we were going to be up half the night, we dragged ourselves out of bed in the dark, threw on jeans, jackets and scarves, and walked with our other two housemates, Grace and Jo, down the length of the Cowley Road and over Magdalen Bridge.

As the sun crept upward over the horizon, we huddled among students, tourists, families with sleepy young children and more than a few bobbing balloons. We knew this day was a beginning – the first day of May, the dawn of summer – but we also knew it was the beginning of an ending. We’d spent eight months living together in our wee chocolate-box house in East Oxford, but in May, we would all finish our courses and at least two of us (Grace and I) would leave Oxford for good. But that day, we still had four weeks to revel in each other’s company.

may day girls

We waited, wrapped in pashminas, morning mist in our hair, to hear the first line ring out from the tower: “Now is the month of Maying.” The crowd was hardly silent, and it was difficult to make out all the words. But we stood and listened, then joined the masses streaming down the High Street in search of breakfast. We treated Lizzie, for her birthday, at a cafe down on George Street, and then we walked back home through the brightening morning, under blossoming tree branches. That night, Lizzie and I slipped on our new dresses and high heels, and danced under the vaulted ceiling at St Aldates, with dozens of our friends.

christ church meadows oxford may day

That last month in Oxford was bittersweet in a thousand ways. I was headed home to the West Texas college town I loved and missed, to be near my family and friends and marry the man I loved. But I was also loath to leave this quiet city of books and gardens, and the friends I’d made during my year there. I longed to freeze time during those last weeks, even as the days slipped away one by one, even as I filled them with long walks and afternoons in cafes and college garden tours and “last things.”

Since I couldn’t hold on to those days, I made every effort to savor them. Even if it meant waking up before dawn and taking a long, chilly walk to hear some old songs performed.

Every year, when the trees burst suddenly into bloom and the light turns golden after months of bare branches and grey skies, I remember that morning in Oxford, listening to that ancient, joyous song with those three girls so dear to me.

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