History of The Month of May

Today, we are very pleased to hand over the blog reins to Bluestone’s resident historian Terry John to tell us some of the traditions folk round these parts got up to in the olden days. 


May is the month when, in gardens and hedgerows, the rebirth of plant life is well under way. Any guest at Bluestone who walks the Nature Trail will see the sharp green leaves of the bluebell spiking the undergrowth, though the flower may not appear for a few more weeks. The pale star of the wood anemone is glimpsed along the wayside and the narrow yellow petals of the lesser celandine shine out of almost every hedge bank.

Small wonder then, that our ancestors regarded May as the start of the summer. The first of May was known as Calan Haf, the calend of summer, just as the first of November was Calan Gaeaf, the winter calend. These festivals divided the year into the main seasons of summer and winter, when certain activities began or ended. They were also marked by rituals that had been observed for many centuries.

The festival of May Day began on the previous evening, which was thought to be a time when supernatural powers were let loose and when the spirits of the dead roamed abroad. In many parts of Wales, bonfires blazed and strictly observed ceremonials accompanied the lighting of them. Nine men were chosen, who turned their pockets inside out so that no money or metal was left in them. They then went into the nearest wood and gathered twigs from nine different species of trees. These were placed in a criss-cross pattern on the spot where the fire was to be built. Watched by a large crowd, one man would take two pieces of oak and rub them together until a flame was kindled. This was used to light the sticks and more wood was added until a large bonfire burned. Sometimes two fires were lit.

A small bag containing portions of cake made from oatmeal and brown meal was passed round and everyone took a piece. Those who picked a piece of brown meal cake had to leap three times over the flames, or run between the two fires. This apparently dangerous ritual ensured a good harvest.

Divination was also practised on May Eve, especially by young girls anxious to know if, and who, they might marry. In Tenby, crowds of townsfolk thronged the streets, all bearing branches of hawthorn in full blossom and decorated with other flowers. These were placed outside the windows of the houses, though it was unlucky to bring them indoors.

On May Day itself, it would not have been unusual to see the inhabitants of parishes such as Newton North, where Bluestone now stands, gathering to sing May carols. This custom began early in the morning and the singers wound their way from house to house. The women of each dwelling had decorated the windows with lavender, rose and lily and the singers wished the family a fruitful summer season and sang the May carols to them. If they had performed well, they would be invited in and were rewarded with food, drink or money.

Carol singing may also have taken place on other mornings during the month and the songs were not necessarily religious in content. In fact, some clergymen were so worried by the behaviour that accompanied the May celebrations that they changed the words of the carols, or wrote new songs and re-organised the rituals to give them a more sober format.

In most villages and parishes, a Maypole was erected on May Day. In Tenby, poles appeared in many parts of the town, all decorated with flowers, coloured papers and bunches of ribbon. Groups of people danced hand-in-hand around them and then made their way from pole to pole, weaving their way in and out of other groups coming in the opposite direction. Each pole was regarded as belonging to the children of the locality and was guarded by their parents, as there were good-natured attempts by people from other parts of the town to pull them down.

Throughout the month of May it would have been quite usual to see women from Newton North parish combing the undergrowth near Castell Coch and making their way along what is now Bluestone’s Nature Trail in Penglyn wood with large woven baskets over their arms. They were collecting those herbs and flowers that were necessary for the making of a variety of folk remedies and cures.

These ladies may have deliberately cultivated bluebells near their cottages, as they knew that the bulbs, when ground to a pulp and heated to evaporate excess water, make a powerful glue. This adhesive was so strong that during the medieval period fletchers used it to stick the feathered flights to the shafts of their arrows. The bulb could also be used to manufacture a starch for collars, though when fresh the root is poisonous

Celandines were also known as pilewort, or figwort (fig was an ancient euphemism for piles) and because its root tuber resembles a haemorrhoid, it used to treat that complaint. The roots were boiled in wine if you were rich, or if you were poor, in your own urine! The leaves were also boiled and, when mixed with other ingredients, were thought to be an effective treatment for wrinkles and eye complaints; toothache could be cured by chewing the root. Because of the rich buttery colour of the petals, bunches of celandine were hung in cowsheds to improve the milk yield.

The white flowers of the wood anemone was often left alone, as there was a belief that it was a holy flower. The trifoliate leaves represented the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. If the flower was picked, a thunderstorm would follow and the culprit might well be struck by lightning.  In the medieval period, the juice of the anemone was prescribed externally to treat leprosy. 

Wild garlic, or ramsons, was harvested at this time. A sauce to accompany fish could be made from its leaves though Gerard’s Herbal recommends that this should be eaten by people of  ‘strong constitution and labouring men’. 

A seventeenth century proverb advised:

Eat leeks in March and ramsins in May

And all the yeare after physitians may play.

Categories:History, Pembrokeshire

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