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May Day - a Traditional Way to Welcome Summer

history, inspiration, nature, personal musingsCharlotte BrownComment

As May Day approaches the days are getting longer, if not warmer – it seems a chilly Spring this year!

I’ve been collecting flowers in photographic form to use as reference for future drawings (some of which you can see below) – and thinking about the turning of the year…

How this time of year was a time when, here in Britain, our ancestors noted and celebrated the changes in the natural world, and what these signified for their everyday lives.

Pretty pink apple blossom is a sure sign the natural world is springing into life

May 1st (May Day) has traditionally always been a day of celebration in Britain.

Although, meteorologically, we are now considered to be right in the middle of Spring, May Day has traditionally marked the start of Summer – and celebrates the energies of ‘life’ and fertility across the natural world.

These are rituals we still mark today. Even though most people enjoying a bank holiday at the seaside, or a bit of fun watching the pageantry of the local May Queen procession, probably have no idea of the original meanings of the celebrations.

The earliest evidence we have for marking May Day is from writings on first century Celts in Ireland, who marked this festival of ‘Beltane’ with fires which represented the fire of life. Druids lit fires on hills (traditionally built from nine different woods).

It was the day when sheep and cattle were driven up to their summer pastures in the hills, passing between two ceremonial bonfires on the way.

Such fire rituals were also quite common throughout the 18th and 19th centuries too. People would walk around a ceremonial fire three times, or jump it three times. The ashes from these May fires were taken to the fields and scattered onto the growing crops, as well as brought home to add to the family hearth.

May Day is a celebration of life, and with this goes a focus on fertility – crops, cattle, flowers and even people.

Beautiful white magnolia bloom

Today, May Day celebrations often focus on the May Queen – often a local girl, selected to be Queen for the day, and the figurehead for the celebrations.

In Roman times, the festival of Floralia at this time of year was named for the goddess of flowers, Flora. This became celebrations for the goddess of ‘increase’ (fertility and fecundity) – Maia.

Beautiful purple springtime anemone flower

The May Queen has been traditionally feted on this day, and bedecked with ribbons and flowers. In past times there was also a Lord of May, or a Jack-in-the-Green figure, connected to the Green Man symbol we still see in so many churches – representative of the ‘green’ life force of nature.

In some areas of the country, people would act out the symbolic ritual of the King of Summer, and the King of Winter, competing for the privilege of the favour of the May Queen – showing how this day was considered the turning point between Winter and Summer.

Red tulip in springtime

As part of the celebrations, a brightly coloured May Pole is strewn with ribbons, and is the focus of dancing, today this is often Morris dancing. Originally the dances would have celebrated life and fertility, and were a way for the young ladies and men to get closer to each other.

In fact, in much earlier times, young people would go ‘a-maying’ together at night, into the woods, with floral garlands and decorated branches, and much fanfare. Their return home to the village in the morning would ‘bring in the May’, singing and strewing flowers.

Voluptuous white cherry blossoms - smell deliciously sweet

The traditional plant of May Day is, of course, the ‘May’, or hawthorn. Originally May Day would have fallen in the middle of our modern month of May, before the calendar-change in the mid 18th century – so the May flowers were usually at their best then.

May Day blossoms were brought into the home for the day, and the tree was decorated with ribbons and garlands.

May blossoms on the hawthorn (Latin name Crataegus) also sometimes known as the whitethorn

The dew on the morning of May 1st, the May Dew, was believed to have special qualities for the complexion, health and blessings.

Water was actually just as important as fire on May Day – people would visit holy wells, and other sacred watery places. We still have this ritual remaining in the custom of ‘well dressing’ in the villages and towns of Derbyshire (decorating the wells with hundreds of flowers).

Flowering quince, with beautiful waxy red flowers

In olden times, May Day was a time when people believed the fairy folk and witches were about. Fairies were often seen as wicked things, so people would bring rowan, hazel and elder into the home to protect against any evil spirit.

Rowan was known as ‘witchwood’ in Yorkshire, and ‘witchwicken’ in Lincolnshire, and was thought to be particularly powerful against witches, so would have protected the front door on May Day.

I love that we’ve kept some of these customs – and I’m sure some are best left forgotten. 

What I do think we’ve perhaps lost sight of, but that is worth remembering, is how nature, and indeed our agriculture and food, still relies on the turning of the year, and the fact that the return of summer brings life to our crops, plants and even birds and animals. I think this is something worth connecting with and remembering.

Bluebells love to grow in woodland areas in late April through early May

Just because May Day brings us the start of Summer, don’t forget the old saying ‘Cast ne’er a clout till May be out’ – meaning ‘keep your winter woollies on until May is ‘out’’. Variously translated as until the month of May is finished, or until the May blossoms are started/over. Personally I think it’s left deliberately ambiguous to account for the capricious nature of the British weather!

Don't confuse this blackthorn with hawthorn - it flowers earlier, and you can tell the difference as blackthorn flowers before leaves, hawthorn after leaves.

Further Reading

Suggested further reading on this topic. You can find my affiliate links to the books on Amazon, below...

  • Jane Struthers: Red Sky at Night, The Book of Lost Countryside Wisdom
  • Tess Ward: The Celtic Wheel of the Year