The May Queen is a girl (usually a teenage girl from a specific school year) who is selected to ride or walk at the front of a parade for May Day celebrations. She wears a white gown to symbolise purity and usually a tiara or crown. Her duty is to begin the May Day celebrations. She is generally crowned by flowers and makes a speech before the dancing begins. Certain age groups dance round a Maypole celebrating youth and the spring time.
According to popular British folklore, the tradition once had a sinister twist, in that the May Queen was put to death once the festivities were over. The veracity of this belief is difficult to establish, but while in truth it might just be an example of anti-pagan propaganda, frequent associations between May Day rituals, the occult and human sacrifice are still to be found in popular culture today. The Wicker Man, a cult horror film starring Christopher Lee, is a prominent example of this.
"The xxx day of May was a goly May-gam in Fanch-chyrchestrett with drumes and gunes and pykes, and ix wordes dyd ryd; and thay had speches evere man, and the morris dansse and the sauden, and an elevant with the castyll, and the sauden and yonge morens with targattes and darttes, and the lord and the lade of the Maye".
Translation: On the 30th May was a jolly May-game in Fenchurch Street (London) with drums and guns and pikes, The Nine Worthies did ride; and they all had speeches, and the morris dance and sultan and an elephant with a castle (saddle in the shape of a castle) and the sultan and young moors with shields and arrows, and the lord and lady of the May".
Many areas keep this tradition alive today. The oldest unbroken tradition is found in Hayfield, Derbyshire based on a much older May Fair. Another notable event includes the one in the Brentham Garden Suburb, England which hosts it annually. It has the second oldest unbroken tradition although the May Queen of All London Festival at Hayes Common in Bromley is a close contender. A May queen is selected from a group of 13 upward girls by the young dancers. She returns the next year to crown the new May Queen and stays in the procession.
A May Day celebration held annually in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada has the distinction of being the longest running May Day celebration of its kind in the British Commonwealth. This May Day celebration began in 1870 and is approaching one hundred and forty years of age. Archival film footage of New Westminster's May Day celebrations from 1932-1962 can be seen online at Quest for the Queens