Although summer doesn’t officially start until June, the first of May, really does mark its awakening. Much of the vibrant old European traditions associated with this day have largely disappeared, but ancestral folk memory dies hard and has managed to keep a tight grip on some of these ancient customs. Many of those who have celebrated the first of May over the past few centuries have had absolutely no idea of the true meaning behind these celebrations.

May Day celebrations have their origins in an ancient Roman festival dedicated to Flora, the goddess of flowers and fruit, which was held each year about this time. The festival itself dates back even further to a time of magic and myth, perhaps as far back as the Palaeolithic. Cave paintings show evidence of practices designed to encourage the fertility of the land as well as shamanistic rites that would ensure a successful hunt. The cult of Flora was brought to Britain by Belgic invaders towards the end of the first century B.C and in later times Christianity took this celebration over and adapted it to its own needs, but it has never completely lost its pagan roots.

For hundreds of years, especially during the Middle Ages, it was the custom to go ‘a-Maying’. Just after midnight, to the sounds of cow horns and drums, young men and women went to the woods where they collected tree branches and decorated them with flowers. They also re-enacted the blessed union of the god and the goddess so as to ensure the fertility of the land. Any children that were conceived during these ‘Green Marriages’ were known as ‘Merry Begots’ and were seen as a blessing. Today we celebrate May Day eleven days earlier than our ancestors did before our calendar was changed in 1752.

At sunrise, the young couples returned from the woods and began decorating cottage doors and windows with flowers and birch and larch branches, especially of those who were unable to go to the bonfire festivities. Inside the cottages, hawthorn branches were hung up to ward against witchcraft while nettles and alder branches were kept for the unpopular villagers who didn’t agree with these goings-on!

Some of the young men who didn’t go into the woods would go ‘May Birching’ instead. This tradition involved them placing mountain ash and hawthorn branches on the doors of girls they loved. Unfortunately, if you were a girl that a boy didn’t love, you might have woken up to find thorns on your doorstep instead.

Around sunrise, young women bathed their faces in the morning dew to ensure a beautiful complexion and others laid down cloths on the grass which they wrung out into bottles so as to be able to use them to cure ailments such as rheumatism, consumption and spinal weakness. Younger girls, not so worried about their looks, would make May garlands. They did this with two hoops, one at a right angle inside the other and decorated them with leaves and flowers. Sometimes they put a flower especially to represent the goddess of spring. In some parts of England it was customary for groups of children to carry May garlands around the village, singing, “Good morning, lords and ladies, it is the first of May. We hope you’ll view our garland, it is so very gay.” Afterwards they would hold out a collecting box.

During the rest of the day, there was dancing on the village green, archery contests and feats of strength among the men. Milk maids would also dance around garlands decorated with valuable items.

The highlight was of course the crowning of the ‘May Queen’, the human representation of the goddess Flora. It was traditional for this young girl to be regally sat on a bower decorated with flowers and to watch the festivities, but not take part. In Medieval times the young girl sometimes wore white muslin decorated with ribbons. With the arrival of Christianity the young girl was replaced by a statue of the Virgin Mary and the whole month of May was dedicated to her. So the wild and fertile was replaced by the pure and chaste.

The ‘Lord of the May’ (also known as the ‘May King’ or the ‘May Groom’) was once as important as the ‘May Queen’ and he would have had silk handkerchiefs tied round his legs and arms while carrying a sword. Summer itself was represented by a dancing man covered entirely with greenery. He was called ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ or ‘Jack-in-the-Bush’. In other parts of Europe he was known as ‘Green George’, the ‘Wild Man’, ‘Leaf Man’ or the ‘Green Man’. ‘Jack-in-the-Green’ can sometimes be seen in old church carvings, often with a face covered in leaves and twigs. This mysterious character was adopted by chimney sweeps whose annual holiday was on the first of May and he was a prominent figure in their processions. A single green figure covered in brightly coloured ribbons and tinsel among the black faced chimney sweeps.

One of the greatest symbols of May Day is undoubtedly the maypole which was a tall thin tree with all of its branches cut off. It was painted in different colours and was carried in processions with musicians playing before it. It was erected on the village green or in the market place where it was then decorated with garlands, ribbons and flowers and was the focal point of the festivities. There are no records of what kind of dances were performed around the maypole, but plaiting the maypole originates from southern Europe, where maypoles were shorter and the dances eventually became more and more ‘ladylike’.

The earliest recording in England of a maypole was in a charter granted by King John where it was called a ‘mepul’. Maypoles were made of pine, larch, elm, birch or ash and lasted for many years. They were only ever replaced if the wood at the bottom began to rot.

During the reign of Elizabeth I, a Puritan called Philip Stubbs wrote how the maypole (a stinking idol) was drawn by twenty or forty oxen with flowers tied to the tips of their horns. He described the maypole as being decorated with flowers and herbs bound with strings from top to bottom. It was followed in a procession by two to three hundred men, women and children. Once erected, the handkerchiefs and flags that were tied to the top would stream in the wind as everyone danced and leapt around it. Maypoles were increasingly seen as immoral by the Protestants and during the reign of Edward VI many were destroyed.

The most famous maypole to be destroyed was originally erected in London in the Strand in 1661 and stood there for more than fifty years. It was over 130 feet high and was so heavy that it took twelve sailors using pulleys and anchors and four hours to raise it. Many London parishes had a maypole and in 1552 the one outside St Andrew’s church was also taken down and chopped up after a local preacher declared that it was a pagan symbol and that the congregation were all idol worshippers.

The May Day festivities were always rounded off with the lighting of the hilltop fires that were once a sacrificial rite. Beltane, meaning bright fire or bel-fire was the Irish Gaelic celebration in honour of the god Bel or Belanus meaning ‘Bright One’. Bonfires were lit on top of hills and sheep and cattle were driven through them to prevent disease and to ensure fertility. Young men leapt over the fires to show their prowess and women jumped across in the hope of securing a husband or for the safe arrival of an unborn child. It was customary for newly wed couples to jump over the fire for luck and to conceive healthy children. For others, stepping over the dying embers symbolised safe travel or a new partner in their lives.

In Dorset England, the 180 foot Cerne Abbas Giant is believed to be a Celtic hill carving. Couples used to lay on his 8 foot penis in the belief that this would help them conceive a child. Some historians believe that this act was part of an ancient Celtic fertility rite because the sun directly aligns with the figure at this time of year.

Another fertility rite involved women riding brooms hobby horse style across the fields and leaping in the air was believed to encourage crops to grow tall and strong. Menstruating women would also dance naked in newly sown fields because, unbelievably, they knew that menstrual blood was beneficial to the soil.

Something that still survives today but barely is Morris dancing. The first of May was the starting date for the year when the Morris dancers would perform at fairs and festivals throughout the summer and Christmas time. There are many theories about the origins of this traditional dance; from a Moorish tradition to perhaps being brought to England from Spain, France or Belgium. Whatever the truth, we can safely say that it is a pagan dance, one that celebrated the rebirth of spring and ensured a successful harvest as well as the fertility of flocks and herds.

The dancers who were all men, stamped, kicked and clapped, enticing the crops out of the ground. And the bells that were attached to their costumes tinkled loudly to wake up the earth spirits. Some dances even required staves, swords or handkerchiefs.

At the beginning of the 16th century, a Robin Hood play came into being and got mixed up with Morris dancing. The main characters in the play were of course Robin Hood, a Christianised form of Robin Goodfellow god of witches and Maid Marian, who perhaps was associated with a moon goddess. During the play Robin dies and comes back to life again; encouraging the crops to grow and the summer to return. There is possibly a connection between Robin Hood and the Green Man.

Sword dances were also part of the May celebrations. Brought to England from Denmark they were later relics of an ancient tradition that replayed the battle between the old year and the new one. They were usually performed in the winter and involved a sacrifice that returns to life (an ancient belief of survival, sacrifice and rebirth). During the industrial revolution these forms of dance gradually faded away as more and more rural communities began to break up.

In Cornwall and other parts of the country there used to be a Hobby Horse Festival held on the first of May. The Hobby Horse was a strange figure of a man standing inside a hoop which was covered in cloth with a handcrafted horse’s head and tail. Accompanied by singers and musicians, the Hobby Horse would go from house to house with people wishing each other good luck and happiness. Galloping after young women the Hobby Horse would trap them under its material covered hoop for luck (luck meaning having plenty of healthy babies!). Does this descend from an ancient pagan fertility rite? The women’s faces at one time were also smeared with soot as part of the initiation.

The Furry Dance that took place in Helston Cornwall was a remnant of a Celtic spring festival that honoured the goddess of spring. It was once a festival that took place in May, but eventually became associated with St Michael. ‘Furry’ probably comes from the old Celtic word ‘fer’ which meant ‘fair’. This day was a holiday and anyone caught working was forced to pay a fine or had to jump across the widest part of the river. Early in the morning young people went off foraging for wild flowers and greenery including hawthorn. Throughout the day there were specific dances just for servants, children and the more wealthy of the town. A group of dancers would also dance and sing their way through people’s homes who left their front and back doors open. Having these dancers make their way through your home was believed to bring the luck of summer into the household.

Well dressing ceremonies were very common at this time of year with wells being decorated with flowers and other greenery. This practice goes back thousands of years to a time when people believed that wells were the dwelling places of spirits, nymphs or deities who all required offerings or sacrifices. They dipped torn pieces of cloth into the sacred waters and hung them onto nearby tree branches as healing prayers. They believed that when the cloth completely rotted away the illness would leave the person’s body. With the arrival of Christianity the pagan gods of these sacred wells were given saints names or were named after the Madonna and eventually baptisms began taking place here. Frames depicting biblical scenes and wooden figures covered in clay, moss, petals, leaves and berries were left by many people who would continue visiting them throughout the summer.

The belief in faeries was strong and it was thought that the faery folk were able to show us a glimpse into their world around this time. If the Queen of the Fae was to ride past someone on her pure white horse while they were sitting under a hawthorn tree, it was said that the person had to close their eyes and turn their head away so as not to be lured away for seven long years. It was also believed that faery children were often substituted for human children and were called ‘May Changelings’. To protect their homes from faeries on May Eve, people would place rowan branches around their doors and windows as well as over the entrance of the cow barn because it was believed that faeries would steal the milk and butter. Bannock cakes, honey, milk and left over food were often left outside for the faeries in the hope of winning their favour.

Many centuries previously, the Anglo Saxons called the month of May ‘Thrimilci’, which means the ‘three-milk month’. This would have been the very first time after an extremely long winter that cows could be milked three times a day. It was a grand occasion for our ancestors who could at last have themselves a full larder which signalled the end of having to ration food supplies.

The ancient Norse didn’t have a celebration equivalent to Beltane because summer arrives later in Scandinavia. However, they did have Maypole dancing and celebrations at Midsummer. The maypole was a much later edition to the Midsummer festivities arriving from Germany during the late Medieval period.

I have included the following European traditions because they are just too interesting to leave out. And lest we forget, many of our European traditions all stem from the same Indo-European roots.

In Romania, the first day of May is called Arminden. The Romanians decorate their homes and pillars with spring garlands and many women and children still practice the tradition of wearing spring amulets called ‘Martisoare’. They believe that their wishes will come true if they tie them to a blossoming tree. A special bread is also baked and decorated with poppy seeds and leaves. The Romanian version of the maypole is the Armenden Tree which is considered to be a sacred symbol made from birch, beech or hornbeam. It is customary to cut down one of these trees on May Eve and tie it to a gate post.

In Germany, the month of May was known as ‘Wonnemond’ meaning the ‘month of lovers’. The ‘Maibaum’ or the ‘May Tree’ was a symbol of marriage and was decorated with streamers and ribbons and was placed in front of the bride’s house. Unmarried men would also perform dances in the hope of attracting a future wife.

In many parts of Bavaria a maypole was put up in the middle of the village and it was customary to steal the maypole of the neighbouring village whilst protecting your own village’s maypole. If a maypole was successfully stolen it was held for ransom in exchange for two barrels of beer. Another Bavarian tradition was ‘maypole climbing’ (Maibaumkraxeln) where men tried to see who could climb up the smooth trunk the fastest. It was necessary for them to put tree sap or pitch on their hands to get a good grip. A prize of pretzels and sausages awaited the winner at the top of the maypole and hopefully a group of awestruck young girls at the bottom. These maypoles were extremely high; about 46 metres!

It is so heart warming to see these traditions being revived in Europe and our ancestral roots growing strong and deep once more.

Now the bright morning star, day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The flow’ry May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow cowslip and the pale primrose.
Hail, bounteous May! thou dost inspire
Mirth and youth and fond desire;
Woods and groves are of thy dressing,
Hill and dale doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early song,
And welcome thee and wish thee long.
                                                                                                      -Milton
Sources:
Traditions, Superstitions And Folk-lore, Charles Hardwick, 1872
A Calendar Of Country Customs, Ralph Whitlock, 1978
British Calendar Customs, A.R Wright, 1936
A Year Of Festivals, Geoffrey Palmer, 1972
The Painting is called The Procession of the May Queen by Herbert Wilson Foster (1846-1929).