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. I’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. The 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.
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.
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?
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;
and bloweth med,
And springth the wode anu;
Sing, cuccu! (words from a 13th century song)
Thanks for an interesting post, Gail, and love the pic of you dancing around the Maypole.
Our church has done a May celebration in the past. My daughters have loved making wreaths and dancing around the Maypole. However, the person who usually organizes is very busy this year, so I don’t think it’s happening. Hopefully next year.
Thanks, Elena! I think it’s lovely that your church has offered this in the past. It’s fun. I hope they don’t give it up after skipping this year! A lot of American churches do “May Breakfasts” but it is not a tradition connected to the original May Day as far as I can see.
Great Post, Gail! It looks like so much fun. Sadly not once in school, church, or my community did anyone ever organize a May celebration, so I have never been able to take part in one personally. Maybe one day!
My Facebook feed was full of dance-related info this morning – a International Folk Festival in England, and morris dancers (in RI and Massachusetts). Spring is a wonderful time to dance – especially outside in the sunshine!
I danced around a Maypole in elementary school, Gail. I remember being worried that I’d move the wrong way and mess up the weaving!
Must write a May Day scene in a book someday.