May Day

Like 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).

Merlin and the Faerie Queen by John Duncan

Merlin and the Faerie Queen by John Duncan

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. Falling 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.

May-queen-IsabelI 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 3 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. (The lovely photo comes from this website.)

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 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.

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.”

John Collier, Guinevere A-Maying

John Collier, Guinevere A-Maying

Guinevere follows her own true nature when she accepts other lovers than her husband. She has a free, otherworldly quality….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 over…. 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).

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 menmaypole 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.

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.

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.

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May Eve

Hawthorn in bloom, Seattle

Hawthorn in bloom, Seattle

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.

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.

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Creating Your Own Maypole

Excerpt from my May Day e-book:

In Wales, the Maypole was usually a birch, cut down in the forest, carried into town and planted in a hole dug into the village green. Friends who’ve attended the May Day ceremony at the former Chinook Learning Center tell me that the men brought in the tree while the women prepared the hole in which it was planted, the two groups working together with bantering and joking about the sexual innuendos of their actions as the tree was erected and settled into the hole.

I’ve also attended the May Day celebrations of the Radical Faeries here in Seattle. Unfortunately the May Pole is already set up by the time we process through Ravenna Ravine, leaving offerings for various deities, so I don’t know how the pole is secured in the hole. It’s important to make sure the Maypole is stable, as dancing around it, pulling on the ribbons, can sway it.

The one year we did a Maypole dance in our backyard, we tried to use a stanchion from a tetherball game to hold the pole but it wasn’t stable enough and one of us had to kneel at the base of the Maypole, steadying it while the others danced around it.

My friend, Maevyn, came up with an artful way of using and re-using her Christmas tree which creates a small, indoor Maypole. She cuts all the branches off her tree after Yule (they would be great for mulch in the garden) but leaves the trunk in the Christmas tree holder. Then on May Day, she attaches ribbons to the top and voila! A miniature portable indoor Maypole!

On the web, I found a suggestion of using a cardboard tube from wrapping paper and inserting it into the umbrella hole of a picnic table. Mrs. Sharp suggests making a portable Maypole by purchasing a large wooden dowel (two to three inches in diameter and at least three feet long), stapling long ribbon streamers to the top and hiding the staples with glued on bows and silk flowers. One person stands holding this pole aloft, while the others dance around it.

The usual length of the ribbon is one-and-a-half times the length of the pole and you must have multiples of four (that is 8, 12, 16, 20, etc.) for the weaving effect to work.

One song that is often recommended for Maypole dancing is Country Gardens. Any sort of country/contra music piece, especially one that can be repeated until the dancing is done, will work. I also think the chant about “Go in and out the windows” would help dancers dancing a Grand Chain. You will find suggestions for patterns to dance and songs to sing in my May Day e-book


Breatnach, Sarah Ban, Mrs Sharp’s Traditions, Scribner 2001

More Resources:

Check out the antique May Day postcards posted by Barbara Marlow Irwin at this web site.

Martha Stewart has a wonderful series of articles about May Day celebrations at her web site, including instructions on making a Maypole (far more sophisticated than those described above), making the cones in which to put the flowers you hang on doorknobs, and three different kinds of Maypole dances.

First published April 19, 2010

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