So spring is apparently here, although in the past week I’ve been rained on, snowed on, and so cold that I’ve considered going back to my winter jacket. With all this inclement weather I decided to spend the day digging around in my old folklore books – because although reading about May Day celebrations isn’t quite as good as actually heading outside to enjoy the season, it is marginally less likely to give me pneumonia.
May Day is the anglicised version of the ancient Celtic festival of Beltane, which translates as ‘the fire of Bel’ (Bel being the Celtic sun god). One of the four so-called ‘Quarter Days’ that marked the changing of the seasons, Beltane represented the beginning of the ‘season of warmth and light’ – i.e. summer. The timing might seem a little off to those of us who don’t think it’s summer until the shorts come out in June, but for the Celts Beltane marked the beginning of the growing season and things coming back to life, when the land would begin to provide the essential means to survive over the next winter.
The link to Bel meant that fire was a big part of the Celt’s celebrations. The hearth fires that had burnt in people’s homes all winter were extinguished, and a special communal bonfire known as the Teineigen (the ‘need fire’) was kindled. The fire was believed to have cleansing properties: people would jump the fire to purify themselves, and women might do so in the hope of increasing their fertility.
Cattle and other animals were also driven through the smoke for the same reason, and also as it was thought to help protect them from disease. Couples would often take the opportunity to hold a hand-fasting ceremony, part of which involved jumping the fire side-by-side to pledge themselves to each other. At the end of the evening, the villagers would take some of the Teineigen to re-start their home fires.
Many Beltane ceremonies also involved ‘beating the bounds’, where the locals would patrol the boundaries of their village to check that boundary stones hadn’t been moved and that fences were in order. It was also a valuable means of passing on the knowledge of the true parish boundaries to the next generation, embedding them in the collective memory and oral tradition in case disputes over the land should arise in the future.
Over time Beltane’s traditions and festivities changed and expanded, incorporating elements that we’d find familiar today. Gradually it transformed into May Day, complete with dancing round the maypole and selecting a young girl from the local community to be the May Queen.
Unfortunately the pagan roots of the festivities did little to endear the occasion to the established Church or the State, and when Puritans took control in 1645 following the Civil War Oliver Cromwell came down hard upon the centuries-old traditions. He described maypole dancing as ‘a heathenish vanity generally abused to superstition and wickedness’, and passed legislation which saw the end of village maypoles throughout the country. Other celebrations were also discouraged and soon May Day seemed to have vanished from popular culture (along with Christmas, because apparently Cromwell hated fun.)
It wasn’t until the restoration of Charles II in 1660 that May dancing returned to the villages and towns of England. ‘The Merry Monarch’ erected a giant 40 metre high maypole in London’s Strand which remained standing for almost 50 years.
By the 18th century May Day was back in full force, with all the old traditions plus the addition of the dancing figure of the Jack-in-the-Green at the head of the procession. Jack is often seen as the trickster spirit of the greenwood, associated with the mysterious ‘Green Man’ who is depicted with foliage sprouting from his face in medieval church carvings. To onlookers unfamiliar with May traditions, however, Jack usually just appears to be a local chap who has got a bit drunk and come dressed as a hedge. The character fell out of fashion in the 19th century thanks to the Victorian disapproval of his bawdy behaviour, but has recently made a comeback in various areas across the country.
Other villages have developed their own unusual traditions, such as the Hobby Horses (a local person dressed in flowing robes and a grotesque horse-mask) that still rampage through the towns of Dunster in Somerset and Padstow in Cornwall.
You might not have any quirky events going on near you, but fortunately for there are some traditions you can do almost anywhere: for example include getting up before dawn and going outside to wash your face in dew. According to folklore this is the key to keeping the complexion beautiful, but as I generally have to be prised out of bed with a crowbar I can’t say I’ve ever tried it.
If you’re a morning person however, you can make the most of the early face-washing start by also ‘bringing in the May’: gathering the fresh early morning flower blooms and making them into garlands to decorate the house or give to 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.
In the end that’s what these celebrations were primarily about: giving the local community the chance to come together and celebrate after surviving a long, isolating winter. May Day marked the people’s connection to the land and nature, but also to each other – something that we could all use a reminder of now and then.
So it might be a bit greyer than we’d like, but if you can it’s worth taking a bit of time to head outside and enjoy the changing of the seasons. And on a positive note: I got dive-bombed by Swallows as I walked past an old farmyard, so maybe summer is coming after all.