May-Day Ceremonies of Greenland Sailors

The first day of May is traditionally the first day of summer. It is an ancient date of celebration and ceremony of pagan origins, which is marked traditionally in England with such rites as Maypole dancing, garlanding and the crowning of the “Queen of the May”. Sailors in the Greenland whale fishery had their own traditions, marking May Day with ceremonies that began just after midnight and continued for several hours. At close to 80° Latitude, as far north as Spitzbergen, the Barents Sea, and Ellesmere Island, there is perpetual daylight from late May, so the ringing in of May Day at these latitudes would have taken place in dusk or twilight. William Scoresby Jr. recounts the events on board the Baffin on May 1st 1820 in his A Voyage to the Whale Fishery, 1822, and describes an excitable, rowdy scene in which the hierarchy of the crew was established and scores settled in an elaborate theatrical display. No doubt drink was taken. Scoresby himself did not join in the festivities:

The proceedings commenced on the striking of eight bells at midnight, by the suspension in the rigging of a garland (very gaily decorated with ribbons, and surmounted with a representation of Neptune, and emblems of the fishery), by the hand of that individual among the crew who had most recently entered into the state of wedlock. Another sailor, strangely metamorphosed in a garb studiously extravagant, was then heard to hail the ship, ordering the main-yard to be braced aback, and a rope to be given for his boat; and immediately afterwards the odd figure, representing Neptune, with his wife, a barber, and his mate, ascended the deck over the bows of the ship. All hands were now summoned by this assumed marine potentate; when each individual, as he passed before him, received from the barber distinguishing patches of black and white upon his face. His marine majesty then went below, and entered into a division screened off from the ‘tween-decks for the occasion, and ordered all the hands, who were not free of the Greenland Sea, to come before him. One at a time they were brought into his presence, and each submitted to his humorous interrogatories, and to the coarse operation of shaving.

Neptune was a striking figure; his back carried a huge hunch, and his swollen bandied legs rivalled the diameter of his body. He was clothed in a naval dress, augmented by a cloak and an immense wig, of which a swab formed the tail. His assistant, whose office it was to perform the shaving operation, was dressed in a neat suit (with the exception of some embellishments) of white nankeen, and formed a singular contrast to his acknowledged sovereign. His lather was a mixture of soot, grease, tar, and other filth, scraped up for the occasion; a tar-brush was the utensil with which it was applied, and a coarse piece of iron-hooping, the substitute for a razor. When the lathering commenced, various questions were proposed by Neptune, respecting the man’s occupation, station and country; and if the unlucky fellow happened to give an answer, the brush invariably penetrated to his throat, and filled his mouth with its superabundant juices. The shaving of such as were decent, well-behaved and orderly characters, though at the best not very delicate, was, nevertheless, accomplished without any severity; but some who had shipped themselves as seamen, and proved to be not only unacquainted with the profession, but, at the same time, mean and worthless characters, were shaven with vast deliberation and coarseness. Two of these being introduced to Neptune in the character of hypocrites, were ordered by him to pass through two or three courses of the operation, on the principle, that, all hypocrites having two faces, it was necessary to scrape frequently and deeply, that the false face might be removed, and the true one appear! The shaving being concluded, and all hands made free, a sort of rude masquerade commenced. The characters were not numerous, but they were, in general, well supported. The introduction of a female character, the wife of Neptune, though any thing but lovely, gave occasion for battle, plot, and dramatic incident. This scene being passed, the ship’s company were marshalled on deck and reviewed. Feats of agility by individuals succeeded; and some tumbling, which was commenced by an expert master of the ceremonies, was attempted by all hands, though at the expence of many coarse thumps on the deck, which it required all their thick and varied clothing to defend them against.

After these feats of agility, a rude, but active and energetic dance succeeded, sustained or directed by the noisy vibrations of every kettle and pan to be found in the ship, but without any instrument more harmonious. The whole terminated with a loyal song, which was chorussed by the whole crew; and then they dispersed with three huzzas, on a summons from the boatswain to “splice the main-brace.”