While international socialism has thoroughly misappropriated May Day, a truly conservative — and thoroughly British — holiday lies near-forgotten on May 29th, traditionally marked with merrymaking and thrashing political nasties with nettles.
Oak Apple Day, a celebration of the restoration of the British Monarchy in 1660 — and possibly an ancient pre-Christian Spring tradition long before that — is a beautiful slice of all but forgotten British history and culture. By ancient tradition, sprigs of oak are worn or hung outside houses and other celebrations including processions, meals, and dances take place.
Failing to wear the oak could once have some consequence — going unadorned would signal your support for 17th century English bad guy Oliver Cromwell and was traditionally punished by being thrashed with stinging nettles.
The day specifically memorialises the future King Charles II’s flight from revolutionary forces during the English civil war, when he was a young prince. Charles was able to evade the soldiers looking to capture him, so the legend goes, by hiding up an oak tree. While his father, King Charles I, was eventually beheaded and the country thrown into the Interregnum terror, the prince was able to escape abroad and in doing so set the stage for the monarchy to be restored upon his return 19 years later.
As the great diarist Samuel Pepys noted in 1660:
“Parliament had ordered the 29th of May, the King’s birthday, to be forever kept as a day of thanksgiving for our redemption from tyranny and the King’s return to his Government, he returning to London that day.”
The oak was already a major signal of English, and later British, identity — and, no doubt boosted by this episode, remains so. The Royal Oak remains one of the most popular names for pubs in the country, often twinned with a hand-painted hanging sign showing a crown among the leaves, and Royal Oak has been the name of several of the nation’s largest battleships.
While observance has waned, it is still remembered in little pockets of old Britain — notably at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, where a gold-plated statue of Charles II is feted with oak leaves and the military veterans who live there in their twilight years wear sprigs, too.
It also survives in a plethora of rural communities and small towns, including in Northampton, where even coronavirus has failed to dampen the spirit in 2020, as proceedings will be streamed on the internet for socially-distanced enjoyment.
Nevertheless, a revival is well overdue — the defining features of British political divide are more now “roundheads versus cavaliers” than they have been in decades.
Happy Oak Apple Day!