What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about Mayday? Personally, with me it is the maypole.
The maypole is said to represent two things. In times gone by our ancestors believed that spirits lived within the trees that made up our woodlands and forests. The sacred tree was worshiped in many ways, one of which was to strip a young sapling which became the centre of worship. This was believed to please the spirits, thus bringing the village luck. Many a time a neighbouring village would envy the ‘pole’ and try to steal it – and the luck it brought.
The most obvious meaning of the maypole however is its representation of fertility. Mayday, or Beltane (the fire of Bel), is an ancient pre-Christian festival of fertility. The pole itself, the phallus, was often decorated in red and white; the red representing the female monthly courses which proved her fertility and the white the male semen.
A garland of flowers was placed at the top of the pole, and, as the dance was woven, the ribbons would allow the garland to descend down the phallic symbol. The fertility celebrations would ensure fertile women, cattle and crops for the year to come.
Who can forget the scene in the Wicker Man when Sergeant Howie discovers what is being taught in the classroom while the boys sing the song of the cycle of life?
In the woods there grew a tree,
And a fine, fine tree was he
And on that tree there grew a limb
And on that limb there grew a branch
And on that branch there was a nest
And in that nest there was an egg
And in that egg there was a bird
And from that a feather came
From that feather was a bed.
On that bed there was a girl
On that girl there was a man
From that man there was a seed
From that seed there was a boy
From that boy there was a man
From that man there was a grave
From that grave there grew
We are lucky mayday celebrations still survive. It was greatly opposed by the church due to its pagan roots. During the 16th century there were riots and a huge public outcry as mayday celebrations were banned, resulting in over a dozen hangings and Henry VIII issuing a pardon for several hundred others.
As a result many villages across England and Wales lost their maypoles, which were then permanent structures due to their size and the difficulty with erecting them. The dancing and frivolity of mayday was only restored when Charles II came to the throne. A rather substantial 130ft pole was erected in London’s Strand where it remained for 50 years.
I remember the excitement as a child at school holding that ribbon waiting in anticipation to begin the well rehearsed dance.
But what else of Mayday?
What of the May Queen? It is easy to think of a beauty pageant, where the prettiest most virginal maiden was selected – but it was not a role which was always so well received. It was a superstition that this role would result in death within a year.
Mayday signifies the arrival of spring, the battle of the Oak and Holly king, where the Oak king, or the Green Man, takes on his reign over Summer, and in a role as Jack in the Green, or Green Jack as he is sometimes known, would get up to his mischievous behaviour.
In London the casting of the character of Jack in the Green was often given to a chimney sweep whose brush in the air looked like greenery.
The hobby horse would be burned at the end of the festivities as a sacrifice. The milkmaid parade was also a key part of the day’s celebrations, dancing in circles with their pails.
The mayflower or hawthorn also plays a more subtle role. The name itself, the May Flower is a big giveaway. Its flowers signify the end of winter and foliage was often used to decorate the Green Man.
The hawthorn, the tree for May in the Celtic tree year, has many other superstitions around it.
Have you ever noticed how so many farm fields are divided up by Hawthorn? Perhaps the custom comes from the belief that planting Hawthorn near to where your cows sleep will bring plentiful milk.
Henry VIII used the hawthorn as his motif when, during the battle Bosworth, Richard III‘s crown was found under a hawthorn bush.
Be sure to never bring springs of hawthorn in flower into your home however, it could result in very bad luck or infertility. And never, NEVER, fall asleep where hawthorn grows, as you run a very high risk of being snatched away by the faeries – more so if hawthorn oak and ash grow together. Trust me; it just isn’t worth the risk.
It may be worth slipping outside to kiss the first, early morning may morning dew however. This is sure to result in beauty, luck and health.
Be sure to bake gingerbread men (also known as baking jack in the green, or John Barleycorn), dress in green and give a little thanks to the tree spirits.
This year we are heading to the Shropshire village of Clun where the annual Green Man celebrations are held. Last year, the snow Queen won the battle-on-the-bridge against the Green man, driving him out of the town. Let’s all hope that she loses as she should this year!!
We will be singing some traditional may songs under the Hare Moon this year, along with one of our favourites by Damh the Bard, ‘Oak, Broom and Meadowsweet’.
Are there any events near you? Do you know of any other traditions?
‘Good morning Lords and Ladies, it is the month of May!
We hope you’ll view our garden; it is so bright and gay.
Oh, it is the month of May, ‘tis the month of May –
So remember Lords and Ladies, it is the month of May!’
‘Hey, ho, merry month of May
Iris and Tulips are gay
With pink apple blossom dancing in the light,
Hey-ho, a very pretty sight!
Wisteria is blossoming, with Lilac and Laburnum,
Red bay by the river, copper Beeches quiver Hey-Ho!’