On May Morning
Now the bright morning Star, Day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The Flowery May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow Cowslip, and the pale Primrose.
Hail bounteous May that dost inspire
Mirth and youth, and warm desire,
Woods and Groves, are of thy dressing,
Hill and Dale, doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early Song,
And welcome thee, and wish thee long.
~ John Milton (1608-1674)
The first of May, by all its names and traditions, is a day marked for its flowers and frolicking, even if, as Shakespeare wrote: “Rough winds do shake” its “darling buds”.
‘May Day Morning’ by Edwin Austin Abbey (1852 – 1911)
For the Druids of the British Isles, Beltane was celebrated to honor the sun, marking the halfway point between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice. Bonfires were lit, usually on the eve of May 1st, smoke and ashes thought to have a cleansing and protective influence. Like Samhain (November 1st), it was a very important festival. Some say the tradition of a pole decorated with flowers, dancers weaving its ribbon streamers intricately together until knotted, began with the pagans. As innocent as it seems, the May pole is a phallic symbol, which ties in with the day’s theme of the fertility of spring for plants, animals and humans. The May bush, made of hawthorn, rowan or sycamore, was decorated with flowers, ribbons, cloth streamers, even eggshells and candles. “Long life and a pretty wife and a candle from the May bush.” Yellow flowers, like primroses, gorse and marsh marigolds, were tied into crosses to be hung over doorways and laid on windowsills and doorsteps to encourage abundance. The Green man was a masculine ‘face’ covered in leaves and shrubbery, often carried through towns and villages. Feasting took place, food and drink offered to the spirits of nature like fairies or elves.
May’s beginning was a celebratory time for the Romans, too. They called it Floralia: five days from April 28th through May 2nd with much wanton gaiety in honor of their goddess of flowers and fertility, Flora.
Triumph of Flora by Tiepolo (ca. 1743)
In Medieval times, ‘a-maying’ welcomed the dawn with the gathering of flowers and foliage, and women washing their faces in dew to improve their looks and encourage men to pursue them. A Queen of the May was crowned, a blending of her origins as the flower bride, queen of the fairies, the Roman goddess of springtime (Maia), and Maid Marion from the tales of Robin Hood; in all these guises generally representing purity and the potential for new life.
‘Queen Guinevere’s Maying’ John Collier (1850 – 1934)
In the puritanical mid-17th century England, May Day was outlawed for a while, a censor the Puritans took to America. The Catholic Church attempted to outlaw the May initiations, but eventually absorbed its pagan rites into its own in order to win converts.
May Day as ‘Labor Day’ and “International Workers Day’ is marked by a bank holiday in many parts of the world, but not in the US or Canada (instead moved to the first Monday in September), probably because of its association with communism and socialism, which certainly doesn’t prevent Americans and Canadians from welcoming and appreciating this day that, no matter sunshine or showers, warm or cold winds, insists winter is finally over.
“There not be a buddin’ boy or girl, this day, but be got up n’ gone to bring in May.”
All day she had tried to ignore what was going on out-of-sight but not earshot, unable to deny the appeal of laughter, lively music and singing inspired by the beribboned pole she had watched going up the day before. She didn’t take part, except to secretly act out one of Martha’s reminisces of being young and wanting to look her best for any possible sweetheart. “Wash in dew from the hawthorn tree, and will ever after handsome be.” Martha also suggested collecting it from ivy leaves or the grass under an oak, emphasizing that it had to be done at or just before sunrise.
“Also prevents freckles, sunburn, chappin n’ wrinkles.”
Donatella took a bowl outside before Martha had arrived and Mama was up. It filled a little as she shook the ivy that hung along the cottage’s front door, the leaves of some kind of thorn at one end of the garden, and the grass she pulled up from under the oak tree at the other. Not sure the dampness everywhere wasn’t from overnight rain, she felt silly and hoped no one saw her running around barefoot and rubbing her face and neck.
~ From my Historical Fiction To A Strange Somewhere Fled (sequel to A House Near Luccoli)
Wroxton Abbey Woods composite with Spring Flowers by DM Denton
Wishing all a very Merry Month of May!
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