Oxford University Festival Tradition

Kevin: Both Being a graduate student at Oxford University and living in London have been great experiences in exposing me to the rich traditional culture of the UK. One celebratory ceremony that immediately comes to mind is Oxford’s May Morning at Magdalen Tower. Although it takes place in Oxford, on Magdalen College grounds, it is not a festival exclusive to the college, nor the university. What basically happens is, students and visitors (I think lots of people come for the festival itself) gather in silence – I believe. Anyway, they gather at the Magdalen Tower in the early hours of the morning, before sunrise. The bell rings several times and then a choir sings the traditional May Morning ceremonial song. I used to know it all actually. It goes something like ‘To thee O God the father, thee, all worship, praise and glory be!’ I forgot it mostly… shoot. Anyway the tower bells ring after the song and then, basically, the streets of Oxford turn into one big party. Nowadays people wear crazy costumes, and there are even concerts organized around the tradition. I’m not sure if the costumes have always been apart of the celebration or not. But anyway, it’s become an excuse to throw a great big party outside and celebrate spring and all. I don’t even go to the ceremony part actually, we just participate once the celebration ensues (LAUGH)!

May Morning at Oxford is a primary example of the folkloric tradition of festivals. Further research of the celebration reveals the celebration’s deeply rooted practice at the university. Tracing back older accounts of the day highlight how the celebration has transformed within contemporary times, yet also shows how the main tradition and meaning of the celebration has maintained throughout its practice. Similarly to what Kevin explained, descriptions of May Morning have always outlined the day starting before sunrise, at the Magdalen Tower, with the sound of bells. This ritual is followed by a performance from the Magdalen College choir, after which the bells ring again, and the party festivities ensue.[1] The hymn Kevin tried attempted to sing, Te Deum patrem colimus (apparently often confused with, Hymmu Eucharisticus – another hymn by the same author at the college) was eventually integrated into the ceremony, although the specific period in which it became the primary song within the ceremony is unknown.[2]

Academic investigations of the Magdalen celebration attempt to uncover the event’s origin and purpose. However, not unlike most folklore, a specific date of origin cannot be pinpointed. Similarly, analyses of the initial purpose for the ceremony differ between sources. A New York Times clipping from 1935 mentions two possible reasons behind the emergence of this traditional- both from drastically different time periods. The newspaper first presents it as a tribute to King Henry VII’s generosity and connection to the Magdalen College. However, the article later associate’s May Morning with the longstanding Roman tradition of celebrating the onset of spring.[3] Additionally, a more contemporary investigation of this particular folk tradition considers both these possibilities as well as the initiation of this festival as an attempt to host a secular celebration during a religiously controversial time.[4]

Justifications for the festivals purpose are not the only aspects of the practice that vary. Many different forms of folklore help to construct the event. The day includes traditional ceremonial rituals, folk music specific to this festival, folk beliefs concerned with the meaning behind the festival, and the day now even encompasses the tradition for Oxford students to dress in whimsical costumes. Similarly, there are many cultural expressions that reference May Morning, such as Holman Hunters 1891 painting entitled, May Morning and the Magdalen Tower.[5] Consequently, the festival is a vibrant part of the Oxford culture. It is a highly respected and celebrated form of expression and celebration, indicated by the extensive literature, both academic and personal, generated about the topic. May Morning unifies the Oxford community as it celebrates the pristine nature that surrounds the university because the whole festival is conducted outdoors.



By DIANA LIVINGSTON. New York Times (1923-Current file); Apr 28, 1935; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007) pg. X20


May Morning and Magdalen College, Oxford Author(s): Roy Judge Source: Folklore, Vol. 97, No. 1 (1986), pp. 15-40. URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1260519 . pp. 17

[3] Livingston

[4] Judge, pp. 25

[5] ibid. pp. 26