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Category: Gail Eastwood

Happy May 1st! For most of us, today is not an official holiday, but given its long history, I think it ought to be. Who’s with me? Bonfires? Dancing? Flowers? What’s not to like? In medieval times it was a huge holiday. And while the celebration of it was not prevalent among the fashionable during Regency times, many of the traditions continued to be observed in the rural villages and pockets of England, and especially in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Maypole-MayDay girlI’m sure in individual families, observance or lack of it varied, depending on their family roots and location. I think it is more fun to talk about than say, the opening of Trout Fishing Season today, or that today (Friday before the 1st Monday in May) is also the traditional “private viewing day” before the start of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, even though that might matter more to our characters!

Celebrating this date, or the night before, has traditions in cultures and belief systems that date back into the mists of time, even before the Romans and their spring Floralia festival. The ancient Celts welcomed summer on the eve of May 1st (which is why “Midsummer” falls on the solstice in late June), with the festival of Beltane.  Early Irish texts relate that the Druids would build two fires, and that cattle would be driven between them to purify them and protect them before putting them out to summer pastures. The smoke from Beltane fires was supposed to have protective powers, so there are many traditions built around passing through the smoke, including jumping over the flames, and taking home embers or ashes to spread the luck. Beltane bonfire1The fires connect symbolically to the sun, an essential ingredient for a successful agricultural and pastoral season. Wiccans celebrate Beltane, so the night’s association with witches is understandable.

The night before May 1st in Germany is Walpurgisnacht, also called Hexennacht (literally “Witches’ Night”). Celebrations usually include bonfires and dancing. There is some evidence the “Witches Night” association in Germany may be of a much later date than the Christian St Walpurga for whom the festival is named: the German folk tradition of a meeting of sorcerers and witches on May Day eve is influenced by the descriptions of witches’ sabbaths in 15th and 16th century literature, and was embraced by authors such as Faust and Thomas Mann. But Walpurgisnacht actually dates back to the 8th century, and has more to do with us writers and fans of Regency England than you might think.

St Walpurga was English. Did you know that? She was born in Devonshire, of a family of the local aristocracy. Her father was St. Richard the Pilgrim, one of the under-kings of the West Saxons, and her mother was Winna, sister of St. Boniface, Apostle of Germany. Walpurga’s two brothers were saints, too! She was educated at Wimbourne Abbey in Dorset, before she ended up in Germany, where she and her brothers were sent to help their uncle working among the pagan Germans (who thought she was the Grain Mother come amongst them). She could read and write, and wrote a biography of her brother Winibald and also an account of his travels in Palestine. Because of these ancient works, she is often called the first female author of both England and Germany. A woman after our own hearts! Her festival is May 1st because that is the date she was canonized by the church.

Queen_of_the_May,_in_June_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1346819

Hawthorn, the traditional Queen of the May flower.

The most common pagan-derived May Day customs practiced in various parts of Europe involve various ways of “bringing in the May” –an excuse to spend as much of the day outdoors as possible. In medieval times, May Day was a true holiday, a day of rest from labor and a day for celebrations, with much time spent in the fields and woods, searching out blooms. (That might be why May 1st was chosen in more modern times for labor protests and International Workers Day?) The “May” meant any kind of tree or bush in bloom by May 1st. (This was easier before the calendar change of 1752, of course.) Hawthorn is the acknowledged favorite, but sycamore, birch, and rowan trees are in the running among others.

Druid at the 21 annual May Day Fairie Festival;, Spoutwood Farm, Glen Rock, PA

A “Green Man” Maypole dancer

Ways of bringing it in included bringing branches, used to decorate the homes or left on doorsteps, or an entire May Bush, or May Tree, decorated with ribbons and ornaments and displayed outside the home or in a public place. It could also mean bringing flowers, and weaving them into garlands to be displayed. In many places, especially in Germany and England, the crowning achievement was bringing a tall Maypole, to be erected as the focus for games & mummery, the selection of a May Queen, and ritualistic maypole dances honoring fertility.  Considered to be a vestige of tree-worship, the intention was to bring home, or bring to the village, the blessings of the tree-spirit. When the church was unsuccessful in banning these celebrations, they tried to make the custom connected to Easter. Did you know that those Easter egg trees people use as table centerpieces connect all the way back to pagan May Trees?

SCA- Maypole Dance

Maypole dance, SCA. Can you find me? Far right, holding onto my hat!

Here is a picture of my local SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) friends (and me) dancing around a maypole on a lovely (but windy) day in May a few years ago.  Did you ever do something like this in school? After declining in the 18th century, May Day customs were resurrected by the Victorians, and these “new” traditions are now revered as old and time-honored, very common all over England.

I just found Louise Allen’s lovely post about May Day with a Cruikshank cartoon of a London procession: http://janeaustenslondon.com/2015/05/01/may-day/
Milkmaids and chimneysweeps were two groups who continued to celebrate May Day even in the Regency. I admit that I am very curious to know, why those two groups and not others? I suppose the connections of milkmaids to their cattle, and chimneysweeps to the fires, might have something to do with it. Anyone else have a theory?

Although I’m American, my family background is English & German. When I was growing up, my sister and I used to make May baskets, decorated with real and/or paper flowers and containing candy, fudge or brownies, and we would deliver them to our grandparents who lived in town, or friends and neighbors. We’d leave it on the doorstep, ring the bell and hide. A vestige of the old blooming branches and flowers left on doorsteps in ancient days? Who knew? Adding chocolate was an admirable modern improvement, don’t you think?

Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing, cuccu;
Groweth sed
and bloweth med,
And springth the wode anu;
Sing, cuccu! (words from a 13th century song)

 

Today the Riskies welcome guest author, Camille Elliot. She’s offering a giveaway, too, so be sure to check the details at the end of her post.

Hello! My name is Camille Elliot and I’m a relatively new Regency romance author.

Camy selfieI’ve been reading Regencies since I was thirteen years old, but didn’t start writing them until a few years ago. For my 40th birthday, I decided to take a “bucket list” trip to England rather than throwing a big party, and I’m so glad I went! It was the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had and it inspired some scenes in my latest Regency, The Spinster’s Christmas.

I was able to visit Lord Byron’s estate, Newstead Abbey, and it absolutely captivated me from the first sight of the ruined chapel front attached to the house.Abbey front

The grounds are absolutely stunning—not as extensive as, say, Chatsworth, but beautifully cultivated. Most of the gardens were developed in the late 1800s but some of the gardens nearer to the house had been there when Lord Byron lived at Newstead.

Two of the gardens that really captivated me were the Small Walled Garden and the Rose Garden. They were originally the kitchen gardens, but were developed, I believe, in the late 1800s. The Small Walled Garden is especially beautiful with arches made of trained pear trees, and the high walls make it seem like it’s cut off from the rest of the world.Small Walled Garden 1Small Walled Garden 2

 

The Rose Garden is gigantic and I could see it as a wonderful place for children to play hide and seek. What was rather funny was the way the trees were sculpted. My friend, Liz Babbs, said they looked like Hershey’s kisses, but I thought they looked like giant turds.Rose Garden 1-cropped

 

Rose Garden 2When I wrote The Spinster’s Christmas, I went back to my memories of Newstead Abbey for a key scene in the book (in other words, a major kissing scene). The children are playing Hide and Seek in the Rose Garden, which I named the Lower Gardens, and my heroine speaks to my hero in the Small Walled Garden, which I named the Upper Gardens.

When writing the scene, I almost felt like I was back at Newstead. Sigh. I hope to go back to England soon, and back to Newstead again!

Thanks so much for visiting with us today and sharing this adventure, Camy!

Camy writes Christian romantic suspense as Camy Tang and Regency romance as USA Today bestselling author Camille Elliot. She lives in San Jose, California, with her engineer husband and rambunctious dog. She is a staff worker for her church youth group and leads one of the Sunday worship teams. The Spinster's ChristmasHer latest novel, The Spinster’s Christmas, is now available for pre-order: http://camilleelliot.com/books/lady_wynwood_series/1_the_spinsters_christmas

This story is the first in Camy’s new series.

The Lady Wynwood series:
The pain and suffering of her short marriage eventually brought widowed Lady Wynwood emotional and spiritual peace. She is able to help her extended family members find love and happiness, but what about herself?
The Spinster’s Christmas:
Miranda Belmoore has never felt attuned to the rest of society. Her family has never understood her blunt speech and unwillingness to bow to conventional strictures, and so they have always made her feel that there is something wrong with her. Now as a poor relation in her cousin’s house, she makes plans to escape a life of drudgery and disdain from her own family members.
Naval Captain Gerard Foremont is having difficulty adjusting to life back on land, frustrated that his career has been cut short by his severely injured knee. Guilt haunts him as he sees the strain his long convalescence has had upon his parents. As they spend Christmastide with the Belmoores, he wants to help fulfill his mother’s wish to have her orphaned niece come to stay with them.
However, an enemy has infiltrated the family party, bent on revenge and determined that Twelfth Night will end in someone’s death …

Camy is offering three copies of The Spinster’s Christmas when it releases (please note it is not available yet!!) to three lucky winners who will be chosen randomly from among those who comment below. Do you have a favorite place in England you would most like to go back to visit again? If you haven’t been there, what one place is highest on your “wish to see” list? Writers, what real places have inspired scenes in your stories?

Historical fiction addicts –er, fans –like us love being swept back in time to the period of whatever story we are reading (or writing). At this blog, we focus on the English Regency primarily, but not exclusively. Sandy’s writing a series set in Roman times. Amanda’s been creating Elizabethan mysteries for a while now. Clearly, we all love history. Immersing ourselves in stories set in the past offers us a very satisfying way to “play in the past”, living it through the characters on the page. But have you ever felt that you wanted more of a direct experience than you could get by imagining yourself in a story? Have you ever tried participating in “living history” activities?Wanna Play-SCA

Confession time: I am a renegade medievalist. Yes, my historical stories are all set in the Regency, a period I love. But in my rare spare time, I sometimes play in a recreated “living history” medieval world as a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). I also occasionally do Regency, 18th century, or even Victorian.

The concept of “living history” as a hobby has had tremendous traction over the past forty-plus years. Back in 1966 when the SCA began as the result of a medieval-themed party in Berkeley, CA, there were nowhere near as many different groups recreating as many different time periods as there are today. If you Google “living history groups US” you get 332 million results!! (better specify time period and location!) Wikipedia offers a “historical reenactment groups” list with over 300 entries, still far from complete. Among those, the SCA, an international educational organization that covers “early medieval to early Renaissance” periods, is one of the largest, now in ten countries, but still not as widespread as Nova Roma (covering ancient Rome), found in 15 countries.

Pennsic War battlefield

SCA fighters on the battlefield at “The Pennsic War”, an annual event in held in Pennsylvania.

“Living History” has also become widely adopted as a teaching method in museums and at historical recreation sites, but that’s a little bit different. I can tell you it’s a great way to do research for stories, through the people you meet and the opportunities to learn. Do you want to know how it feels to wear a corset? Or how to load a flintlock rifle? How period food tastes? Or how heavy a “two-handed” sword might be? But be warned, doing it can be consuming and highly addictive because it’s such fun!

Coggshall Farm 1981

Gail (center) & friends in 18th century garb -in 1981!

“Living History” enthusiasts differ from re-enactors, although there is plenty of overlap. Most re-enactor groups are military, recreating specific units and/or specific events, especially battles. There’s going to be a reenactment of the Duchess of Richmond’s ball on the night before Waterloo, as part of the anniversary of that famous battle 10 days from now. (Wouldn’t you just LOVE to be there?) Despite differences, all these groups attempt at varying levels to capture the details of life and “portray the look and actions of” people from a particular time period –the clothes, the food, the day-to-day activities, the pastimes, the arts, crafts, science –in the effort to bring the time to life.

I can’t speak for other groups, but in the SCA the key to all of one’s participation is the creation of a persona, a character who is your medieval alter-ego, anchored in a specific time, place and culture within the range the SCA covers. Creating a persona gives you the entry point for the research and practice of whatever you are interested in doing. My persona (English, of course), Asenath Chamberly of Morrismount, slides around in time a bit, because my interests in costuming and dance expanded well beyond what would have fit her lifetime. But other SCAdians (and other groups) may follow a much stricter approach.

Pennsic War bannersThis interest in “recreating” the past as recreation isn’t just a modern idea. Queen Victoria was fond of giving costume balls themed to specific times in history, and the first Queen Elizabeth enjoyed tournaments that were intended to recreate the jousting feats of an earlier age.  Here is a link to a brief video of an “Assembly” I recently attended, held in a 1789 ballroom where George Washington may have danced. (I bet the floor was a lot more even back then!) I am standing in the back watching the dancers, as we were very hot and tired by then!

If you are interested in groups concentrating on the Regency, there are many to choose from, depending on where you are located. Some western U.S. ones include: Bay Area English Regency Society, the Oregon Regency Society, the Arizona Regency Society, and PEERS (the Period Events and Entertainments Re-Creation Society –not limited to Regency). There’s also the Regency Society of America, FOER (Friends of the English Regency), the Elegant Arts Society, and many more.

Do you “play in the past” beyond the pleasures of reading? If you were going to, what time periods would you most be interested in recreating?

 

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