The Merry Month of May

By Terry John Calendar

Mist in May, Heat in June
Makes harvest come right soon.

This was one of the traditional sayings by which our ancestors forecast the farming year. It was the month in which many hedgerow flowers blossomed and when the crops began to sprout. The harsh winter months were at an end and the lush productive months of summer lay ahead. Not surprisingly, the first of May became a day of celebration. People danced on the village greens, bonfires were lit and branches of greenery were collected by the village children to make into garlands. In many areas, the May Queen was crowned with flowers and was carried in procession through the village.

The celebration of the first of May and the lighting of fires was a custom which stretched back to the time of the pagan Celts over two thousand years ago. It was thought that the old year ended and the new year began on what is now the eve of the first day of November. This was the festival of Samhain, when the gods could move freely in the human world and people could step unsuspectingly into the Other World. Many great and powerful supernatural events could take place on this night so rituals and ceremonies were held to preserve and balance the natural order of things. Samhain marked the beginning of the dark half of the year, when the world was gripped by cold and ice.

The first of May was the festival of Beltain, when the bright summer months of the year began and great fires would be lit in the Celtic settlements. People would bring their cattle to the festivities and would drive them between two roaring fires, in the belief that by doing so the animals were protected from disease in the coming season. Fire was seen as cleansing and magical and therefore lucky and the name Beltain  or Beltine may derive from the word bil-tene meaning good luck. It could also commemorate the Celtic god Belenos, for fires were lit in his name at this time of the year.

The ancient Celts had a well organised yearly calendar, in which the year was divided into twelve lunar months. This was adapted to the solar year by adding an extra month of thirty days in every three year cycle. Each month consisted of twenty-nine or thirty days and, like the year itself, was divided into a light half and a dark half. A thirty day month was an auspicious time, when people hoped to prosper, but they expected less good luck in a twenty-nine day month.  It wasn’t wise to expect too much happiness within a thirty day month however, as regardless of its length, every month contained a mixture of  lucky and unlucky days.

The Anglo-Saxon name for May was Tri-Milchi because, as the new grasses appeared, it was possible to milk the cows three times a day. You won’t be surprised to learn that, with so many links to ancient pagan religions, May is actually named after the Greek goddess Maia. In fact, it was first called May in the early fifteenth century. Before that it was referred to as Maius, Mayes or Mai.

The lighting of bonfires was not the only custom observed on the first day of May, Young women would get up very early in order to wash their faces in the morning dew. It was supposed to have magical properties and could banish spots and pimples and ensure a beautiful complexion for the rest of the year.

In some parts of Wales, May Eve was the time to settle disputes, or at least to make it clear that you disliked someone. A young man whose sweetheart had transferred her affections to someone else  would make a straw effigy of the new boyfriend. This would be placed close to the young lady’s house, and a letter would be pinned to it describing the couple in derogatory terms. A fight between the two young men often followed at the May Fair.

A bunch of nettles could be placed on the doorstep of someone you disliked, though of you wished to pay a compliment, the nettles would be replaced by a branch of hawthorn.

In Tenby, the inhabitants would gather on the streets on May Eve, carrying in their hands  boughs of hawthorn brightly decked with many different kinds of flowers. These would be placed by the windows of the houses. The King and Queen of the May paraded through the streets, demanding from passers-by candles, or the money to purchase them.  The candles were lit at night to illuminate the May-bush, which became the focus for dancing and merriment for as long as the candles lasted. As the last one guttered out, a great bonfire of furze was lit and the May-bush was tossed onto the flames.

Maypoles were set up across the town and the young men and women of the town would dance from maypole to maypole, often dancing in and out of another chain of people moving in the opposite direction.

When the last of the fires had died out and the embers had cooled, people would rake through the ashes, selecting a few handfuls to be carried home. A charred branch from a May fire was a good protection against pestilence and it also had magical properties. A sprinkle of ashes in your shoes protected you from sorrow or woe. Sometimes people could be seen driving the odd cow or sheep across the scorched earth of the bonfire site, hoping that this was as good a protection as the roaring fires had been.

Until quite recently, it was the custom on 29th May for people to wear oak leaves pinned to their clothing. This commemorated the day on which King Charles II entered London after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. It also celebrated the escape of the King after the Battle of Worcester, when he had hidden up an oak tree to escape from Parliamentary soldiers.

Oak Apple Day was also known as Pinch-Bum Day - but we won’t go into that particular story.



April Fools History

Find out about the mysterious history of April Fool’s Day.