May Day

1 MAY – 19 JUNE
Summer properly starts with May Day, once known as the Celtic festival of Beltane (“Beautiful Flame”). May Day and Hallowtide were considered the two greatest festivals of the solar year, representing rebirth and death respectively. May Day (also called Walpurga or Garland Day) was the time when our ancestors celebrated romance, sex and passion. May Day marked the ‘bright half’ of the year — the beginning of summer — a time when livestock were mating, fruit trees were blossoming, flowers buzzed loudly with bees and birds were trilling and nesting. The Anglo-Saxon name for May was Tri-Milchi, in recognition of the fact that with the lush new grass, cows could be milked three times a day. It was also the last day of the planting season for late crops.

“May is the time of fertility and new beginnings after a long winter. The Faeries are afoot! They dance in the hills and roll in the grass, reveling in the joy of warm May breezes. Our spirits are high with the lust and heartiness of spring. New life is stirring and appetites are keen.” – Celebrate the Earth

May Day marks the emergence of the young God into manhood. Stirred by the energies at work in nature, he desires the Goddess. They fall in love, lie among the grasses and blossoms, and unite. The Goddess becomes pregnant of the God. To celebrate, a wedding feast for the God and Goddess must be prepared. This ‘Divine Marriage between the Lord and Lady of the Greenwood’ was traditionally symbolised by the Maypole – the pole (carved from birch) represents the male principle, and the ribbons that wrap around it (and the wreath placed atop the pole) symbolise the female principle.

“The Maypole represents the phallus of the God. The wreath atop represents the vagina of the Goddess. As the Maypole is danced, the ribbons wind around the pole and the wreath lowers, symbolizing the Divine Marriage, the sexual union of God and Goddess.” – Dancing with the Sun

In Celtic times, young people would spend the entire night in the woods ‘A-Maying’. In anticipation of these May Eve trysts, the young men would prepare a lovers’ nest somewhere private, in the nearby woods or countryside. They would make a crude shelter of branches, decorated with flowers, nicknamed “Robin Hood’s Bowers”. Young couples would make love in these rustic arbors and the children born of these couplings were considered particularly blessed and known as “Children of the May” or merrybegots. These “greenwood marriages” were acts of sympathetic magic believed to have a positive effect on their crops, animals, and themselves. Lovers pledged to live together for a year and a day. At the end of this period, they parted ways if things hadn’t worked out… or they made plans for a hand-fasting at Midsummer. The Church also conducted marriages at this time and imposed its own festival of Whitsuntide, when people set off on pilgrimages, perhaps to mark the end of the May celebrations, which were sometimes lengthy.

May Day was celebrated with drumming, piping, games, dancing, stamping, may dolling, bell sticks, mummers, and hobby-horses. Many people would rise at the first light of dawn to go outdoors and gather flowers and branches, although it was bad luck to bring ‘the may’ inside the house. Women and girls washed their faces in May Day dew to magically enhance their beauty, and braided flowers into their hair. The magical hawthorn tree is resplendent in blossom during May; nicknamed ‘mayflower’, it was considered sacred, and associated with fairies. People would visit hawthorn trees to make wishes. It had protective energies, and only on May Eve could villagers pick its leaves and blossoms. “Hawthorn was never brought into the house during the month of May. Indeed, it was never taken into our rooms. There was a strong feeling against it in every cottage and farmhouse, for it was a portent of death in that year,” wrote Alison Uttley in Country Things (1946).

Morris dancing seems to have been performed originally at the yearly sun festivals of Autumn, Winter and Spring. These were all fire festivals, where the men would burn the bones of a sacrifice (usually a horse) and dance round the “bone-fire” wearing elaborate costumes and with faces blacked to hide their identities. The central figure of the dances was usually an animal-man. These dance rituals were for the men only, as tending fires was for women only. One man would attend the bone-fire disguised as a woman; this character is known today as the “Molly”.

The bonfire, or need-fire, is one of the oldest May Day traditions. They were lit using sacred woods: oak, apple, hawthorn, birch, elder, ash, blackthorn, grape vine, rowan, holly, willow, cedar, yew and hemlock, and were used for purification (farmers led their cattle through the smoke). Ashes from the balefire were scattered in the fields as a fertility charm, and villagers jumped over the dying embers to receive summer blessings. A couple who planned to marry on May Eve would jump through the flames of the bonfire to seal their vows and consecrate the union. Folks in olden times also believed that the fairies could not create fire and had to rely on humans to do it for them. Once the balefire was lit, fairy folk would cart off the coals to use in Fairyland.

This ancient woodland god, also known as Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood or the Lord of the Forest, is the ever-returning energy of vegetation and wild nature. He is linked with drinking and feasting at May time, when the consumption of an image of the deity (often made from gingerbread) was ritually eaten. On May Day, there was always a pageant led by the chosen local May Queen and her consort the Green Man. The roofs, pillars and doorways of the great cathedrals and churches of Europe are still adorned with thousands of Green Man gargoyles and carvings. Stonemasons carved images of the Green Man and Sheela-Na-Gig into Christian churches’ ornamentation as a sign of their undying pagan roots.

He dances the Moon with power and grace
Amidst the hills and trees, in His sacred space
A dancer moving swiftly between the realms
There in the leaves… what do you see?
If you honour the Old Ways — it may be He.

Part of the May Day celebrations was the crowning of a May Queen. When the sun rose, the maypole was decked with leaves, flowers and ribbons while dancing and singing went on around it. The Queen was chosen from the pretty girls of the village to reign over the May Day festivities. Crowned on a flower-covered throne, she was drawn in a decorated cart by young men or her maids of honour to the village green. She would be crowned there right on the green spot. She was set in an arbor of flowers and often the dancing was performed around her, rather than around the Maypole.

Dairy foods and oatmeal are traditional May Day fare. Oatmeal in particular is said to bring good fortune and encourage the power and magic of faeries. Make yourself a bowl of oatmeal drizzled with honey on May 1, or enjoy some warm oatmeal cookies. In Germany, villagers brewed May Wine flavoured with sweet woodruff (Waldmeister or Maikraut). May Wine is also the name for any wine punch flavored with herbs, fruits, berries and occasionally flowers. To make May Wine, pick sweet woodruff that does not have open blossoms several days before you want to serve the wine. Tie the stems with cotton thread and hang until dry so the sweet vanilla scent of the herb emerges. Then immerse the dried herb in a bottle of wine, usually Rhine wine. The traditional Mai Bowle also has strawberries in it. You might garnish yours with fresh woodruff, Johnny jump-ups and violets. In Germany, the Mai Bowle is served every day during the month of May.

May Wine
1 cup sweet woodruff
2 bottles rose
4 dozen rose petal ice cubes
1 quart strawberries
1 quart chopped peaches
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup white rum
2 bottles Champagne
1 bottle white wine
1 liter lemon-lime soda

Two weeks before serving, clean woodruff and pack into one bottle of wine. Cork and let sit. The day before serving, make four dozen ice cubes by placing rose petals in the compartments before adding water. Freeze until solid. Hull and wash the strawberries. Slice. Mix peaches and strawberries. Add sugar and rum. Marinate overnight. An hour before serving: Strain woodruff out of wine and discard leaves. Mix Champagne, all remaining wine, lemon-lime soda, and fruit in a large bowl. Stir.
Add ice cubes 15 minutes before serving. Serves 20.

Excerpt from Tales of Wych Elm Gate
Bess carried Mother’s best basket, adorned with ribbon streamers, deep into the Friendly Woods. All the Village schoolchildren were already there, their whoops and squeals echoing through the flowering rowan trees. Paul and Ettie Everdon were there, and the Penberthy twins, and Lily Cobb with armfuls of sweet cicely; Ivy Stoughton wore a wreath of celandine, and little Elsie May Wensley was singing heartily:

The gypsy rover come over the hill,
Bound through the valley so shady;
He whistled and he sang
Til the green woods rang
And he won the heart of a lady.

The children rambled through the woods and hedgerows, gathering heartsease and nonesuch, meadow rue and spindle until their fingers and thumbs were sore and green, and the woods laughed along with them.
“My sister Clara says a dashing gentleman was Maying alongside your sister in the woods last night,” said Ettie Everdon, linking arms with Bess. “Who is he?”
“What happened to Sam Willcott?” demanded Phyllis. “I thought he was a decent chap.”
“I know,” said Bess miserably. “Mother’s second cousin once removed showed up at our house last week and Polly’s smitten with him.”
“Well, I don’t like him,” said Ettie loyally. “He’s not from our Village.”
“Everyone is saying that your sister will be May Queen,” said Ivy admirably. “I hope when I’m Polly’s age, I shall wear a May crown and have endless streams of beaux.”
“It’s not like that,” Bess huffed, but there wasn’t time to be irritated, for the sound of a piper was already floating through the trees. The children climbed the stile and entered the Village Green, their baskets brimming with May, and found the revellers from the night before erecting a young birch tree that had been stripped of its branches, but for the top.
“Come along, children,” called Miss Maycomb, who managed to look as stony-faced as ever, despite the fact it was May Day. Bess joined the others at the long tables that lined the Village Green and began making garlands. She secured two crossed sticks together and wound them with Mayflowers, placing her clockwork doll in the centre, and decorated hoops with ribbons and blooms. On the Green, Polly and the other Villagers were decorating the maypole with leaves, flowers and ribbons. On another long table lain with white linen, the Village women were laying out stews and breads, cold sliced meats and chutney. Bess could see Mother and Mary winding their way through the crowds carrying baskets covered with calico, and knew they were filled with Mother’s lauded lardy cakes.
“That’s enough trimmings, now,” ordered Miss Maycomb. “The band has arrived.” The pupils formed a wobbly procession behind her, bearing their garlands. An accordion player, fiddler and drummer struck up a merry tune, and all the schoolchildren went May Dolling down the high street, skipping and laughing and waving. A man with a colourful baldric strung across his chest rode beside them on an enormous hobby horse, silver bells jingling. Mr Burrow carried a wicker basket with a straw-stuffed Green Man inside, his mask bedecked with oak leaves and long green rags sewn all over his lumpy body. There was something about the Green Man that always gave Bess a frightful little shiver – those bushy eyes glaring from under the foliage – and she wriggled past him and raced up to the front, where Hatty Penberthy was shaking a wooden bell stick. Villagers leaned out of their windows cheering, and clapped in the doorways, and followed them in a grand loop back to the Village Green.
Now Bess’s heart began hammering, because she must take a streamer and begin the maypole dance. Bess had danced around the maypole every year since she had started at the Village School, but she still never got it right. Some years, the maypole ribbons wound nice and tight in a plaited tabby-weave; other years, the birch tree resembled a tangled cat’s cradle. Miss Maycomb cleared her throat, the piper began his song, and the schoolchildren grabbed their streamers and began weaving and wobbling in turns.
“Veer to the right,” hissed Alby Cook as he pranced past Bess, confusing her immediately.
“To the left,” said Charlie Burrow, elbowing Hatty.
Bess and the others zig-zagged disorientatedly around the maypole, trying to concentrate.
“Wrong side,” said Harry Jones, zooming past Bess.
“Slow down!” whispered Alby Cook.
Bess could hardly think, and the Villagers had started to guffaw from the sidelines. Miss Maycomb was shooting dark, suspicious looks at Charlie, Alby and Harry, and the maypole was knotting itself into a colourful mess.
“Three cheers for May Madness!” shouted Big John, holding a mug of ale, and everyone whistled and clapped.
Amidst roars of laughter, the children and their tangled streamers were hurriedly ushered aside as Jack-in-the-Green bounded into their midst, his clothes sewn with fresh greenery and laurel leaves dripping from his hat. The Villagers cheered as Mr Stoughton entered behind him, dressed as a medieval town cryer and ringing a handbell, to introduce the seven mummers. It was terrific fun trying to guess who they all were, with their blackened faces and hats covering their faces with streamers. There was saintly Prince George and Slasher the Fool; a quack doctor with an enormous hat; and evil Beelzebub, who held out his cap for money. The Villagers roared with laughter as Prince George was killed and brought back to life again. Bess could have watched the mummers all day, but before no time had passed, “Little Johnny Jack his wife and family on his back” had galloped onto the Village Green. It was Clem Everdon carrying a model house filled with dolls, and everyone showered him with food and groats.
Now whoops and cheers could be heard from behind Mr Stoughton’s shop, and a group of young men appeared carrying a flower-covered throne. Atop the greenery sat Polly holding a garlanded sceptre and looking more duchess-like than ever, her golden hair glinting in the sunshine, her cream-pink dress strewn with tiny petals.
“Three cheers for Polly Asheton, Queen of the May!” called Mr Stoughton, clanging his bell, and everyone whistled and threw rockroses and sprays of vine. Polly was led beneath a blossom-covered arbor, where Mr Stoughton ceremoniously crowned her with a thorn blossom garland, and she curtsied gracefully.
“She’d better not get a big head after this,” said Will, appearing next to Bess. “She might be allowed to rule the Village today, but she’s certainly not ruling me when she gets home.”