Nicola here, celebrating the month of May. What does May
mean to you? For me it brings back memories of dancing around a stripy maypole
when I was at primary school. More prosaically it is also the month when I have
to get the car taxed and serviced. There are also two public holidays in
the UK during May so that means lovely time spent with family and friends, eating, drinking and making merry. Traditionally there is a lot of that sort of celebrating in May!
The month of May probably takes its name from Maia, the
Roman goddess of growth. In the Northern hemisphere at least it is a month traditionally associated with fertility when nature makes a great
show of its fecundity. In Le Morte D’Arthur, Sir Thomas Malory uses the word
“lusty” four times in five lines to describe the month of May and the effect it
has on human behaviour: “Every lusty heart that is any manner a lover, springeth,
burgeoneth, buddeth and flourisheth in lusty deeds.” You get the idea!
The Irish Gaelic name for the month is Beltane and the
Festival of Beltane, marked by the lighting of
bonfires, takes place today on
May 1st. In Scots Gaelic it is Ceitain, meaning beginning, because
it was the first month of summer in the Celtic calendar. Whilst May can bring a
taste of summer it can also be a chilly month. “Rough winds do shake the
darling buds of May,” as Shakespeare said, and I vividly remember my
grandmother reminding me of the old warning: “Ne’er cast a clout til May be
out,” a piece of advice she followed to the letter with hat, scarf, gloves and
coat on when she went out in May. Here she is in the photo (admittedly this was Norway in May!)
May is traditionally a month associated with merry-making
but one would be foolish to disregard the warnings in the old superstitions.
For example it is unlucky to buy a broom in Cornwall in May for fear of being
accused of witchcraft. Any other time of the year is fine. Also an early dip in
the sea is not recommended: “He who bathes in May will soon be laid in clay.”
We have been warned.
May Day itself is rife with old traditions. This year it
won’t be possible to go out “maying” at dawn to collect branches of hawthorn,
because the weather has been so cold that they aren’t fully in flower yet. This
custom dates from before the 13th century and was part of the
festival at which the May Queen was crowned and villagers danced around the
maypole. Maypoles were originally cut from wood; the one erected to celebrate
the restoration of King Charles II to the throne in 1660 was 134 feet high and stood
for fifty years. These days the sport of maypole stealing is rife in some
villages in the UK to the point that some of them are fixed with burglar alarms as well
as lightning conductors.
As a child I used to attend the famous May Fair in the town
of Knutsford in Cheshire and the thing I
remember best is the “sanding of the
streets.” The story goes that in the 11th century King Canute
emptied sand from his shoes after fording the river at Cnut’s Ford and patterns and pictures in coloured sand are still made on the pavements to bring good fortune to the
town. I absolutely adored these as a child. Sadly I couldn't find any photos of the street sanding but there are some wonderful old pictures of the May Day celebrations.
In the mid-seventeenth century the Puritans uprooted the
maypoles and banned the May celebrations because they encouraged drinking and
licentiousness but they were reinstated after 1660. These days it is more
likely to be health and safety regulations that lead to the festivities being
banned; a few years ago the cheese rolling ceremony at Cooper’s Hill in
Gloucester was cancelled in case people fell down the hill.
The connection of May Day and cheese perhaps comes from the
fact that in medieval England the serfs and peasants were granted the right to
the lord’s milk for a week after the Spring Equinox (April 21st) and
so could make more cheese and butter than usual. Many of the traditional foods
celebrating May Day are milk-based puddings especially cheesecakes and in
Ireland, Hasty Pudding, which I believe is also made in the US.
Do you celebrate May Day and the coming of summer? What will May bring you and what does the month of May look like where you are? I imagine that in the Southern Hemisphere in
particular May looks and feels very different. Time to keep warm in front of
the fire, perhaps. Wherever you are, a very happy May Day to you!