Celebrating May with the Wakefield Community

The May FairThe First May Fair

In 1860 The First Universalist Society in Wakefield needed funds to finish paying for the expansion and renovation of their church building.  A year earlier they had removed the Greek Revival facade, added a steeple and weathervane, and moved the building back on its lot. As all renovations do, the improvements cost a little more than expected.

To raise the last $300, the church put on a May Day Celebration on the Common.  This was an all-day affair with breakfast lunch and dinner, music, speeches, “surprises” and “curious entertainments”. Flowers, ice cream and confections were sold. Admission was 25 cents.

Music by Gilmore's Band

The townspeople attending the May Fair may not have known it, but they were getting a treat when the church hired Gilmore’s Band to provide the music.  Patrick S. Gilmore, the leader of the band, was a 30 year old Irish immigrant beginning a celebrated career as a band leader.  A year after the May Fair, Gilmore and his band joined the 24th Massachusetts Infantry of the Union Army, eventually being named Bandmaster General by General Nathaniel Banks. During the war Gilmore wrote the words to the well-known song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again”.

In 1872 Patrick Gilmore produced the World’s Peace Jubilee in Boston.  This was a massive international festival featuring a 2000 piece orchestra, a 20,000 voice chorus and 100 Boston firemen striking anvils for one piece of music. In later years Gilmore continued his career in New York based at Gilmore’s Concert Garden, which became the first Madison Square Garden.

The May Fair was a great success and raised $500 for the renovations.  For many years thereafter it was repeated by the church.

The Centennial May Festival

In 1913 a special May Festival was held as part of the church’s centennial celebration.  The Universalist Ladies Association sponsored the event.  Boston dancing teacher Rose I. Byrne, a member of the American Society of Professors of Dancing, was hired to produce the entertainment. 200 children performed in “elegant and picturesque costumes”. Dances included a “May Procession”, “Buttercups and Daisies”, “Greek Maidens Playing Ball”, “Young America” and various others. The event was held on Friday night and Saturday afternoon with the Friday night event followed by general dancing.

Recent May Celebrations

In 1999 the Church called the Reverend Edmund Robinson as its minister. An avid folk musician, Rev. Robinson organized May Day celebrations on the Upper Common for several years. After church on the first Sunday in May the congregation would walk across Main Street to a May Pole erected on the common. There they were joined by Morris Dancers and by others interested in the May Pole. While the Reverend Robinson played his concertina, the Morris Dancers performed and those interested danced around the May Pole weaving the ribbons in and out in celebration of Spring.  

For a century and a half the Wakefield Unitarian Universalist Church has celebrated May Day with the community around it. With Gilmore’s Band, with 200 children dancing, and with a May pole and Morris Dancers, May Day celebrations have served to bring the church and community together. 

Event Date: 
Sunday, August 26, 2012 - 11:00pm