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Celebrating May Day

"Guinevere's Maying" by John CollierLike Candlemas, Lammas and Halloween, May Day is one of the corner days which fall between the solar festivals of the year (the equinoxes and solstices). The ancient Celts called this holiday Beltane and began celebrating at sunset on April 30th. It marked the beginning of summer, time to move with the flocks up to the summer pastures.

Alexander Carmichael, a 19th century amateur folklorist, describes the annual procession to the summer pastures in language which reminds me of more contemporary summer pleasures, like summre camp, summer vacations, summer cabins:

On the first day of May the people of the crofter townland are up betimes and busy as bees about to swarm. This is the day of migrating, bho baile gu beinn (from townland to moorland), from the winter homestead to the summer sheiling. The summer of their joy is come, the summer of the sheiling, the song, the pipe and the dance, when the people ascend the hill to the clustered bothies, overlooking the distant sea from among the fronded ferns and fragrant heather, where neighbour meets neighbour, and lover meets lover.
The animals were driven in procession with the sheep leading, the cattle following, according to their ages, with the goats next and the horses last. The men carried the tools needed to repair the summer huts while the women brought the bedding, food supplies and cooking utensils. They hiked up their skirts to enable them to walk with greater ease. Once they reached the summer grazing ground and finished their errands, they feasted on an unblemished male lamb killed that day. Then the prayed. The Protestants called on the Holy Trinity but the Catholics also invoked St Michael of the three-cornered shield and flaming sword; St Columba, guardian of the cattle; Bride, the foster-mother of Christ; and the Virgin, mother of the White Lamb.
As the people intone their prayers on the lonely hillside, literally in the wilderness, the music of their evensong floats over glen and dell, loch and stream, and is echoed from corrie and cliff till it is lost on the soft evening air.
In Germany, April 30th is Walpurgisnacht, the night when it was believed that witches flew on their brooms to mountaintop gatherings where they danced all night around bonfires. This night is named after St Walpurga, who came from England in the 8th century to become the abbess of a German monastery. It seems a little hard to believe that this holy woman would have her name associated with such licentious rites until you consider that early monasteries evolved from pagan colleges of priests and priestesses. On this night, St. Walpurga and her followers went up into the mountains to perform sacred rituals.

The May Queen

Like Halloween, this is a night when witches, fairies and ghosts wander freely. The veil between the worlds is thin. The Queen of the Fairies rides out on a snow-white horse, looking for mortals to lure away to Fairyland for seven years. Folklore says that if you sit beneath a tree on this night, you will see Her or hear the sound of Her horse's bells as She rides by. If you hide your face, She will pass you by but if you look at Her, She may choose you. Ellen Kushner wrote a wonderful book about a poet, Thomas the Rhymer, who chooses to go with the Fairy Queen.

Halloween is a festival of death, a time for letting go and mourning. May Day, on the opposite side of the Wheel of the Year, is about life, about falling in love and frolicking in the woods. Death is an ending but also a beginning. Fallin in love is a beginning which is also a death. The Goddess who manifests herself at May Day calls you out of yourself and you may never return, at least to the same world you knew.

Choosing a May Queen and King used to be part of celebrating May Day. A young girl dressed in white represented the Goddess in her maiden aspect. The merry month of May and the word maiden both come from the same source, a word which simply means young. In Piedmont, in Italy, the Bride of May carries the maggio, a green branch garlanded with ribbons, fresh fruits and lemons. In some English Villages, the maiden is called Maid (or May) Marian and this is considered Robin Hood's holiday. Bishop Latimer describes how his services were disdained during the Robin Hood May Games in his Sixth Sermon before Edward VI, 1549:

I came once myself to a place, riding a journey homeward from London, and sent word overnight to the town that I would preach there in the morning, because it was an Holy-day. I thought I should have found a great company in the church, but when I came there, the church door was fast locked. I tarried there half an hour and more; at last the key was found, and one of the parish comes to me and says: "This is a busy day with us, we cannot hear you; this is Robin Hood's day, the parish is gone abroad to gather for Robin Hood." I thought my bishop's rochet should have been regarded, though I were not: but it would not serve, and I was fain to give place to Robin Hood's men.
I grew up in the Catholic Church and my parish celebrated May Day, my favorite ceremony probably because it is almost completely pagan. All the little girls dressed in white with floral wreaths on their heads and baskets of flowers in their hands. We processed into the parking lot (all good May festivals take place outdoors), scattering flowers as we went until we reached the statue of Mary which was taken outside for the occasion. The girl chosen for the honor placed a wreath on Mary's head while we all sang:
O Mary, we crown thee with blossoms today
Queen of the angels and Queen of the May.
I've seen it suggested that the Catholic Church made Mary the Queen of May as a way of promoting chastity rather than the sexuality of earlier goddesses associated with May, like Flora, the Sabine goddess of flowers. Her festival, the Floralia, was celebrated from April 28 through May 6 in Rome with lewd games, strip teases, scattering of peas and lentils, and letting loose hares and goats (both considered particularly randy animals). However it seems just as likely to me that May was always considered the woman's month, a time of blossom and fruition, and Mary was simply the best Catholic emblem of that.

Oddly enough, May was considered an unlucky month for marriage but the authors of A History of Their Own, provide one explanation for this. They write, "A man could not marry in May, the woman's month, because then he would fall prey to lust and give her power over him." It was also unlucky to buy or use a new broom or brush during May (did this have something to do with women also?). Kightly in The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore/I> records an old English rhyme:

Married in May and kirked in green
Both bride and bridegroom won't long be seen.
This also suggests that May is the month of the fairies. Since green is a fairy color it would be inappropriate to wear it in church. The Almanack also states that changelings are often substituted for mortal children during May.

Visit the store to purchase our May Day Packet, chock full of ideas for celebrating this holiday!

The Flower Maiden

Sir Thomas Malory writes about the potent effect of May and the customs of King Arthur's court in La Morte d'Arthur:

It was the month of May, the month when the foliage of herbs and trees is most freshly green, when buds ripened and blossoms appear in their fragrance and loveliness. And the month when lovers, subject to the same force which reawakens the plants, feel their hearts open again, recall past trysts and past vows, and moments of tenderness, and yearn for a renewal of the magical awareness which is love.

Early one morning in May, Queen Gwynevere commanded ten of her knights to prepare to ride with her a-Maying. Each knight was to be accompanied by a lady, a squire and two yeomen, and all were to be decked in silk or other cloth of the freshest green, and decorated with moss, flowers and herbs. They were to ride into the fields and woods of Westminster and to return to King Arthur at the court at ten o'clock.

It was customary for the queen to ride forth only in a large company of knights, know as the Queen's knights--knights who were most young, lusty and eager to win fame, who wore plain white shields. Knights who were killed were replaced at the next Pentecost. Chief of them all, of course, was Sir Launcelot.

But this particular May Day, Launcelot is absent and Gwynevere is kidnapped by Sir Mellyagraunce, from whose clutches she must be rescued by Launcelot. Caitlin and John Matthews write about Guinevere and the myths that revolve around her in Ladies of the Lake. The Matthews suggest that Guinevere has been wronged in successive retellings of her story, portrayed as a weak, adulterous woman. They see her as the British Venus, a woman who is beautiful and perilous in her own right, "one who is totally aware of the effective nature of her sexuality."Guinevere follows her own true nature when she accepts other lovers than her husband. She has a free, otherworldly qualityÉ.She cannot be expected to be faithful to the contract with one husband when her brief is to be faithful to the inner harmonic of the Goddess of the Land. The Flower Bride is the beautiful face of the land, to be eternally fought overÉ.The law of the Goddess of the Land is that she must be guarded by the most worthy knight and by he alone. When the man whom she has made king fails in his duty, she is at liberty to find another, more worthy champion. It is this aspect of the Flower Maid that causes most trouble.In an early version of the myth, the kidnapper is Melwas, the Lord of the Summer Country, who dresses himself in leaves (like the Green Man) while waiting for her to come along. There are many Celtic legends about the beautiful young woman (like Bodeuwedd, the Flower Bride, or Isolt) who is in the middle of a triangle, with an older, established man (her husband) and a younger, stronger and more handsome suitor, usually an outsider or a man with an otherworldly background. The two men may be seen as representatives of winter and summer (recalling the expression "May-December" marriage for a match between a young woman and an older man).

Bringing in the May

In old England, the young people went out into the woods on May Day Eve and stayed all night, returning in the morning, laden with flowers and green branches. The Puritan writer, Philip Stubbes, has an interesting way of explaining the nature of the sacred rites which took place in the woods: I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity, credit and reputation; that of forty, threescore or a hundred maids going to the woods over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.

Ben Jonson writes “Out of my doors, you sons of noise and tumult, begot on an ill May-day.” The children of May marriages were often called Jackson, Hodson or Robinson since they were the children of the Jack in the Green, Hod (a woodland sprite) or Robin Goodfellow (or Robin Hood, another form of the Green Man).

Many May Day customs involve flowers and green branches. Flowers are woven into wreaths to exchange as gifts between lovers or to hang on doors as decoration. Or flowers are placed in baskets and left on doorsteps for the recipients to find when they arise in the morning. Hawthorn is particularly auspicious since it begins blooming when the weather is warm enough for planting. Anyone who went out into the woods and found a branch of flowering hawthorn (also called may) would bring it triumphantly into the village (thereby bringing in the May) and announcing the start of planting season. However there were warnings about bringing hawthorn into the house, since it would invite the fairies in. Sometimes flowers were given as messages: plum for the glum, elder for the surly, thorns for the prickly, pear for the popular.

Guenevere A-Maying
Guinevere’s Maying” by John Collier

May Poles and Dances

Spicer in The Book of Festivals says that in Eastern Europe, a young man goes into the woods on May Eve, chops down a young fir tree, decorates it with ribbons and colored eggshells, and plants it outside the bedroom window of his sweetheart. In Scandinavia and Germany, May trees are important for both people and animals and are set up before doors, sometimes one for each animal in a stable. In Italy, Maypoles are called alberi della cucagna (trees from the land of milk and honey). They are greased poles with prosciutto, mortadella cheeses and money dangling from the top. The men try to get these prizes by climbing the pole which is greased with lard. Eventually the grease wears off and someone gets the prize. A similar custom is found in Wales. In English villages, the Maypole is often decorated with a broom or bush and brought in from the woods with girls riding astride it.

Stubbs reports (with some disgust) on the revelry which surrounds the Maypole:They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nosegay of flowers tied on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this Maypole (this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with flowers and greens, bound round about with ribbons from top to bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colors, with two or three hundred men and women and children following it with great devotion. And this being reared up with handkerchiefs and flags streaming on the top, they strew flowers on the ground, bind green boughs about it, and set up summer halls, bowers and arbors, hard by it. And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leap and dance about it as the Heathen people did at the dedication of their idols, whereof this is a perfect pattern, or rather the thing itself.The Maypole is a symbol with many meanings. Often celebrated as and considered a phallic symbol, it also resembles the garlanded trees associated with moon goddesses. In the Phyrgian rites of Attis, celebrated around the spring equinox, a fir tree was chopped down, wrapped in a shroud and placed in a tomb. Resurrected three days later, it was decorated and danced around. In some places, May Day ceremonies took place beneath a sacred tree, which was not uprooted. These trees represented the world-tree, the axis between heaven and earth.

In Italy, May Day was celebrated by tying lemons and ribbons around flowering branches and brining male and female trees to be married in the piazza, according to Carol Field in Celebrating Italy. Field reports that men in Tuscany and young women in Piedmont sing in May with rhyming songs called maggiolate. In Assisi, two sections of the city compete by singing love songs, a custom which she traces back to the Celtic Campi de Maggio, battlefields of May, the time when the weather was nice enough for war again (or perhaps an early version of a tournament). Some scholars believe that the love poetry of the troubadours originated in the love poems associated with May Day. The Welsh medieval poets loved to write long poems rhapsodizing about spending May in a green bower with a lovely lass.

The Maypole dance is a round dance of alternating male and female dancers, weaving in and out in a maze movement, plaiting ribbons as they go. Maypole dances fulfilled social and sacred functions. They helped people flirt and mingle socially. They also raised energy in a patterned and focused way.

In England, May Day was also an occasion for Morris dancing and mummer's plays. Scholars have speculated that the exaggerated leaps of the Morris dancers serve as charms to show the crops how high to grow (similar dances are reported from early Roman times) and the clashing of their sticks may represent a ritual battle between summer and winter. The mummer's plays feature odd character including Green (or St) George, a hobbyhorse (or dragon), a male/female, a teaser, a jester and chimney sweeps with their brushes. Sometimes the hobbyhorse has coal under his skirts and he tries to trap young women under them. Only those who are marked with coal can dance around the maypole. Sometimes the play portrays a battle between summer and winter. Summer squirts winter with water and seizes the garland from winter and presents it to the May Queen.

The Dew of May

In Cornwall, in the afternoon of May Day, the boys would take buckets, cans and dippers and splash water over everyone who was not protected by the sprigs of elm or hawthorn passed out in the morning.

A similar bit of action takes place on the Sluggard's Feast which takes place on the eve of Pentecost in the Netherlands (Pentecost is the Christian May Day, 50 days after Easter, just as Beltane is 6 weeks after spring equinox). The young people get up early and gather green branches from the woods. They dip them in water and fasten these over the doors of the sluggards, those who have slept in, those too stodgy to want to go roaming in the woods. When the late risers open their doors, the branches tumble down and drench them. Then the young people, who are lurking nearby, beat the lazy ones with branches and sing songs about the sluggard.

Water seems to have special properties on May Day. A Mother Goose rhyme records:

The fair maid who, the first of May
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree
Will ever after handsome be.

Other sources suggest using the dew found under oaks or on ivy leaves. Make a special wish as you wash your face in it or as you drink from a well before sunrise. The first Sunday and first Monday in May are traditional days for dressing (decorating and honoring) wells.

Creating Your Own Bower

Bring the May into your life by bringing home green branches, flowers and branches of flowering trees. Transform your house into a bower. Make a wreath to hang on the door or to crown your version of the Goddess.

This is a time for giving gifts. Gather flowers with special messages for friends and relatives. Make up your own explanation of the meaning of each flower and give it along with the bouquet. For friends at a distance, send pressed flowers or May Day cards or packets of flower seeds. Barbara Walker in Women's Rituals suggests other appropriate gifts including perfume, incense, candied flower petals, herbs, sachets and artificial flowers.

If you can, stay up all night, preferably outdoors. At least go for a walk in the night on April 30th and listen for the bells that herald the approach of the Fairy Queen. And you can run around, under cover of darkness, leaving May baskets of flowers on doorsteps.

On the first of May, wear your most colorful clothes or dress all in green (the color of the fairies). Consider wearing a flower in your hair. If festivals were associated with decades, Ma Day would definitely be the 1960's because of its association with sensuality and free love, sweet smells and Nature, flowers and bells.

Make May wine by flavoring wine with herbs, berries, fruits or flowers. The traditional May wine is white wine flavored with sweet woodruff (soak the sprigs of woodruff in the wine for only 15 minutes or so to flavor the wine). If you don't drink alcohol, use the same technique to flavor milk or apple juice. Drink a toast to the glory of May. You might want to use this in a love ritual.

Celebrating Sexuality

Even if you are celibate, you can celebrate your sexuality on this night. Treat yourself like a Goddess or a God. Take a long luxurious bath in scented water. Anoint yourself with oils. Crown yourself with flowers. Indulge yourself. Sip your May wine. Honor your sexual choices.

In your journal, recall the times when sex was magical, when you felt alluring or you fell in love. Write about smoldering glances, the times your body caught fire, the sweetness of a first kiss or caress.

If you have a partner, celebrate sex as a sacred activity. Make the time you spend together and the space you inhabit special. Light candles (but be sure to blow them out before you fall asleep) or strew the bed with rose petals. Notice how your lover represents the God or Goddess to you. This is the time to celebrate attraction and pleasure.

See also May Day Foods


Anderson, Bonnie and Judith Zinsser, A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present, Harper and Row 1988
Carmichael, Alexander, Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations Collected in the Highlands and Island of Scotland in the Last Century, Lindisfarne Press 1992
Field, Carol, Celebrating Italy, William Morrow 1990
Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, Granada Publishing 1976
Kightly, Carlo, The Perpetual Almanack of Folklore, Thames & Hudson 1987
Kushner, Ellen, Thomas the Rhymer, William Morrow 1990
Malory, Sir Thomas, La Morte d'Arthur, rendered in modern idiom by Keith Baines, NY: Bramhall House MCMLXII
Matthews, Caitlin and John, Ladies of the Lake, Aquarian Press 1992
Spicer, Dorothy Gladys, The Book of Festivals, The Woman's Press 1937
Walker, Barbara, Women's Rituals, Harper & Row 1990

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