Yesterday morning, a group of us headed to Covent Garden for the annual May Fayre festival. This old-time folk celebration commemorates the birthdays of England’s favorite puppets, Punch and Judy, who are also the originators of the term “slapstick”. Samuel Pepys recorded the first English appearance of the puppets 357 years ago. Now, this time of year is an excuse for the people of London to break out their puppets and celebrate an important element from their British childhoods.
The primary festivities began with a puppet-packed processional complete with a big-band ensemble and stilted leader guiding us and our puppets around Covent Garden. Occasionally, the parade would park itself in various places around the neighborhood to sing happy birthday to the famous puppet or greet those watching the parade from their apartments with songs and cheers. We were all lifted up by the incredible enthusiasm and vitality of our leaders whether they were heckling those we passed by or blowing their pennywhistles with gusto. Everyone was willing to let their marionette strings down.
The parade started and began at St. Paul’s Church which sits across from the market place. The church’s garden hosted a small fair which included miniature puppet shows and pastry stands. Inside St. Paul’s, or “the actor’s church”, a group of us attended the special May Fayre church service. You may be wondering how St. Paul’s attained such a title as “the actor’s church”. The answer is that the church has been connected to surrounding theatres such as the Theatre Royal and the Royal Opera House since the 17th and 18th centuries.
It was also under the church’s portico that the Italian puppets, Punch and Judy, first made their debut which means that the church takes its famous puppets’ birthdays very seriously. The church service began with the band processional leading the parade into the sanctuary. Next came a series of hymns, dramatic readings by actors, and a sermon that highlighted the reverends talents as an actual marionette master. But the highlight of the service was when all puppets came to the front of the sanctuary or “stage” to receive God’s blessing followed by the final hymn, “Lord of the Dance”. We left the fair to go watch the Zulu ballet, INALA, with the hymn stuck in our heads and our hands feeling empty without a puppet of our own. With all its weirdness and “slapstick”, we were glad we got to experience such an engaging celebration of British culture