‘There’s not a budding boy, or girl, this day,
But is got up, and gone to bring in May’
Herrick, a 17th century English poet
Decorating Houses – May Day began early in the morning. People would go out before sunrise in order to gather flowers and greenery to decorate their houses and villages with in the belief that the vegetation spirits would bring good fortune.
Washing in the early morning dew Girls would make a special point of washing their faces in the dew of the early morning. They believed this made them very beautiful for the following year.
May Queen The rest of the day was given over to various festivities. There was dancing on the village green, archery contest and exhibitions of strength. The highlight of the day was the crowning of the May Queen, the human replica of Flora. By tradition she took no part in the games or dancing, but sat like a queen in a flower-decked chair to watch her ‘subjects’.
May Day Garlands Young girls would make May Garlands. They covered two hoops, one at right angles inside the other, with leaves and flowers, and sometimes they put a doll inside to represent the goddess of Spring.
May Day Lifting There was once a tradition in England of ‘lifting’ where a gang of young men would lift a pretty girl in a flower bedecked chair on May day. Then the girl would choose a boy on May 2nd.
May Day Tricks In the North of England, the first of May was a kind of late ‘April Fooling‘ when all sorts of pranks would take place and ‘May Gosling’ was the shout if you managed to trick someone. The response would be:
‘May Goslings past and gone. You’re the fool for making me one!’
A similar festival existed in ancient Rome called Floralia, which took place at around the end of April and was dedicated to the Flower Goddess Flora. On May 1, offerings were made the goddess Maia, after which the month of May is named.
The church in the middle ages tolerated the May Day celebrations but the Protestant Reformation of the 17th century soon put a stop to them. The pious Puritans were outraged by the debauchery of Beltane celebrations. In fact, they made Maypoles illegal the mid 1600’s, and tried to put a halt to the “greenwood marriages” that frequently took place on May Eve. One pastor wrote that if “tenne maiden went to set (celebrate) May, nine of them came home gotten with childe.”
But when Charles II was restored to the throne a few years later, people all over the country put up maypoles as a celebration and a sign of loyalty to the crown.
May Day had a boost in popularity again in the 19th century when the Victorians seized on it as a “rustic delight”. But many of the significant pagan aspects of the day were ignored by our strait-laced ancestors and instead of a fertility rite, dancing around the maypole became a children’s game.
Like Samhain, the holiday of Beltane is a time when the veil between the worlds is thin. Some traditions believe that this is a good time to contact the spirits, or to interact with the Fae. Be careful, though — if you visit the Faerie Realm, don’t eat the food, our you’ll be trapped there, much like Thomas the Rhymer was!
Some Irish dairy farmers hang a garland of green boughs over their door at Beltane. This will bring them great milk production from their cows during the coming summer. Also, driving your cattle between two Beltane bonfires helps protect your livestock from disease.
Babies conceived at Beltane are considered a gift from the gods. They were sometimes referred to as “merry-begots”, because the mothers were impregnated during Beltane’s merrymaking.
“Bringing in the May” also involves getting up very early, gathering flowers, making them into garlands and then giving them to your friends to wear. If you are feeling particularly charitable, folklore advises that it is good time to make up a “May basket” of flowers to take to someone who needs cheering up.