As part of an age-old celebration of the arrival of spring, Oxford residents and students alike gather on the city’s Magdalen Bridge at 6am on 1st May each year. The crowd listens in total silence, enraptured by the beautiful sounds of the Magdalen College Choir singing the Latin hymn Hymnus Eucharisticus – written by the College’s 17th century choirmaster Benjamin Rogers – from the top of Magdalen College Tower.
Oxford’s unique May Morning celebrations date back more than 500 years, although the exact origins of the traditions are hazy – they are thought to stem from the building of Magdalen College Tower and from the College choir’s desire to sing publicly at the start of spring.
The festivities surrounding the renowned annual choral performance have evolved over time: the rather extreme tradition of students jumping off Magdalen Bridge into the River Cherwell as the bells rang out was banned in 2005 after 40 people who had leapt into the shallow waters were injured.
Nowadays, the audience moves through the city centre streets towards Radcliffe Square after the choir has sung, to enjoy folk music and Morris dancing displays across the city. Local culinary businesses also play an integral role in the revelries: as well as serving breakfast to the hungry early-risers following the musical performance, many city centre cafes and eateries open as early as 5am on the day of the celebrations, to provide a refuelling stop for students who have taken on the now-traditional challenge of staying up all night ahead of the morning festivities.
In May 2022, following the necessary temporary move to virtual celebrations during the pandemic, May Morning will once again be celebrated in person. And this year’s event promises to be a particularly special occasion, with 30 artists being invited to decorate Magdalen Bridge for the event.
If you find yourself in Oxford on Sunday 1st May this year, be sure to set your alarm for bright and early, so you too can join the crowd of thousands gathered on Magdalen Bridge and witness first-hand the extraordinary sight of the city of Oxford celebrating the arrival of spring in its own iconic way.