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What's On, Culture

May Day the Right Way


An Oxford tradition spanning around 500 years, May Day was founded in 1485 by William, Wayneflete, the Lord Chancellor of England. Very little is known about the early celebrations other than its origin being to mark the completion of Magdalen Tower and the start of spring, but there’s a little more to it than that.

When Henry VII came to the throne, he granted a licence to Magdalen permitting the college to retain the advowson (the right of the patron to put forward a member of the clergy) and £10 per annum each were used to fund May Morning.

Since then, people have used May Day as an opportunity to rejoice the arrival of spring, with a day of singing, dancing, and general revelry all of course while adorned in flora. While many choose to start their celebrations the night before as clubs and bars are open all night long, traditionally it begins at at 6am when thousands gather to hear a Latin hymn – Hymnus Eucharisticus – sung from the top of Magdalen College tower.

After this, come the bells which ring for around 20 minutes before a crowd procession into the city centre where you can find cafes and pubs open especially early for the occasion. Elsewhere, there is usually Morris Dancing, and until recently students would jump off the Magdalen Bridge – though we don’t advise partaking in this tradition…

Where to go for your May Morning Breakfast

While there are plenty of choices of venues looking to help you celebrate, these are a few of our favourites…

Silvie, Iffley Rd: Open for an early morning breakfast service from 7am-10am – no booking is required, just come along after your early trip to Magdalen Bridge or post your May Ball. Free fizz will be served with each breakfast order and singing, instrument playing, spring dress-up and Morris dancing are all welcome and encouraged.

George Street Social: Join them for a special may Day celebration any time from 7am. Enjoy two for £12 on bloody Marys or a delicious brunch washed down with a mimosa. Booking is advisable because this is a popular choice.

Tick Tok Cafe, Cowley Rd: have been doing May Morning longer and harder than anyone else and will be serving Full English, breakfast baguettes, pastries etc. Usually open all night and all day on Mayday, this is an option worth keeping an eye on to see how they’ll celebrate this year.

Quod: To provide refuge to those wishing to mark the occasion with a celebratory early morning breakfast and glass of fizz, Quod will be serving a special May Morning breakfast menu on their outdoor terrace, from 6am.

The Angel and Greyhound, St Clement's: Stop by on your way back from the bridge, The Angel and Greyhound will be ready and waiting with teas, coffee, pints, and burgers grilled to exactly how you like them from 6am to 11pm.

St Aldates Tavern: Opening their doors at the early hour of 6am, St Aldates welcomes you with a selection of beers, bar snacks and hot food from 7am.

G&Ds on St Aldates and Cowley Rd: G&Ds are a well-loved feature of Oxford traditions like May Day, and usually join in the fun by opening at 6am with their normal breakfast menu. Keep an eye on their website and socials to make sure they’re doing the same this year.

Special thanks to the Museum of Oxford for providing us with some historical information on the origins of May Day.


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