May Day for the Cuckoo

Tuesday May 6, 2014 — Leave a comment


Carfax Tower, Oxford

Carfax Tower, Oxford

For more than five hundred years, the May morning celebrations in Oxford, England, start at six in the morning.  The Magdalen (pronounced mawdlin) College Choir climb the one hundred and seventy two steps to the top of the impressive stone bell tower, built in 1492, to perform ethereal music to greet the sun.  About eight thousand people gather on Magdalen Bridge, looking up at the 144-foot tower, the highest building in Oxford, to hear the choir sing for about six minutes.  Many of the students will still be in black tie and evening dress from May balls held the night before.  The Hymnus Eucharisticus is sung in Latin and will be followed by other traditional songs such as this round dating back to 1260, which is thought to originate in an abbey in the neighbouring town of Reading.  Written in Middle English, `Sumer is icum in` loosely translates:

Summer is a coming in

loudly sing cuckoo,

bloweth mead and showeth seed

and loudly sing cuckoo

sing cuckoo.

At ten past six, the celebrations get fully underway with Morris dancing.  Grown men dressed in white shirts, trousers with gaiters of bells, sashes and ribbons of bright colours and brightly trimmed sombre hats; perform the traditional English folk dance with sticks or a white handkerchief in each hand, accompanied by an accordion.  Morris dancing is in decline and unless more men (yes it is still a men only pass time) come forward, Morris dancing may be extinct by 2030.  Is embarrassment at these antics preventing young men from coming forward?  Or, is it the decline of the English pubs, currently closing at a rate of six a day?  It would be sad to see the end of such a fun tradition.

A champagne breakfast then follows, for the hardy (because it is still cold in England at that time in the morning) it will be from a picnic hamper on a punt on the Isis. (The Isis is the name of the river Thames as it flows through Oxford). For others it will be a hot breakfast in one of the many pubs and restaurants that open specially for the event.

Eagle and Child Pub on St Giles, Oxford. Home to the Inklings writing group.

Eagle and Child Pub on St Giles, Oxford. Home to the Inklings writing group.


However, singing “cuckoo” by the choir is probably the only guaranteed way to hear a cuckoo this spring.  A delightful bird that flies in from southern Africa is a predatory breeder.  This term describes a bird that lays an egg in another’s nest – displacing one of the eggs of the host bird in the process.  As this chick will be bigger than the usual offspring, the youngster will eliminate the competition for food by pushing its siblings out of the nest.

Until 1940 The Times newspaper traditionally printed a letter, `On hearing the first cuckoo in spring` (also a reference to the music by Delius), and perhaps needs to resurrect the tradition.  It might become so special to actually hear a cuckoo it will be news – the first or only cuckoo heard in spring.

The cuckoo comes in April

He sings his song in May

In the middle of June

He changes his tune

And then he flies Away

Old English Poem c1870.

I’ve been on Magdalen Bridge listening to the May Day call from the choir, watching the Morris men dance.  So many English traditions – quirky, eccentric are alas dying out.  Sing Cuckoo!



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