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!