Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbalow!
We were up long before the day-o
To welcome in the summer
To welcome in the May-o.
The summer is a-coming in
And winter’s gone away-o.
Robin Hood and Little John
Have both gone to the fair-o.
And we will go to the merry greenwood, to see what they do there-o
Welcome to the merry and magical month of May! Out comes Jack, Robin Hood, the maypole and all the flowers in the greenwood, some with a ‘hey nonny -no’ and some without, and jolly wonderful it all is too!
In 1883 the Shropshire folklorist, Charlotte Burne, wrote ‘the magical virtue of everything connected with the month of May is well known’ and over one hundred years later May retains its ambience of the uncanny. It is a liminal time. The magical properties of herbs and other plants collected in May were regarded as beneficial as were other remedies made at this time such a 19th century balm for burns made from ‘goose-dung and the ‘middle bark’ of the elder tree, fried in May butter.‘
It is still widely understood that to wash one’s face in the early dew of a May morning will enhance beauty and remove blemishes.
The dew is said to contain all the goodness from the spring herbs and grasses so having the power to strengthen joints and muscles if rubbed into the skin.
This most enigmatic of months has been fondly welcomed and celebrated for hundreds of years, a time for dalliance and love. The season was ‘bought in’ with the cutting and display of flowers and blossoms, especially May blossom from the hawthorn. In Shropshire the hawthorn doesn’t blossom until late in the month and so Marsh Marigolds, known as ‘Mayflowers’, were gathered instead.
The ‘bringing-in of May’ was first recorded in the thirteenth century apparently referring to a variety of foliage but primarily the blossom of the hawthorn or whitethorn. However, it would seem that birch was preferred as decoration in the Welsh Marches and Wales.
In many places special May songs were sung: the ‘Night Song’ on May eve followed by the ‘Day Song’ the following morning, most famously sung today at Padstow in Cornwall. Hertfordshire, Leicestershire and Cheshire also sang night and day songs. And many May songs still survive. Our local pub still resonates to some riotous singing but ‘Delilah’ just doesn’t cut it in the same way as Fred Jordan’s May songs would have when he sang there after work in the previous century.
This was also a time a time for some opportunist fund raising and ‘May-singing’ and ‘garlanding’ was one way to raise money. In the seventeenth century, London milkmaids would put on their best frocks, dress up their pails and hair with flowers and dance through the streets to the sound of fiddle and drum, collecting money from their admirers as they went. Samuel Pepys recorded encountering one such group in 1667 one May Day on his way to Westminster.
‘In London thirty years ago
When pretty milkmaids went about,
Its was a godly sight to see,
Their May day pageant all drawn out.
Such scenes and sounds once blest my eyes,
And charmed my ears, but all have vanish’d
On May Day now no garlands go,
For milkmaids and their dance are banish’d’
Hone’s Everyday Book, 1827
Many customs were banned over the centuries depending on contemporary political and religious views and no doubt many have been lost or forgotten but today people continue to dance and sing, pick flowers and cavort with hobby and hooden ‘osses at this time of year. And many continue to rise early to welcome the dawn on May morning, dance in the rising sun and celebrate the arrival of summer.
Some customs saw a nostalgic revival, and re-invention in some cases, by Victorian antiquarians and folklorists and for that we should be grateful as many more would have been lost and forgotten (although a number have been ‘tidied’ or ‘cleaned’ up!) . Their identifications by antiquarians and by some folklorists as representations of a pagan past has, in some cases, ensured their survival and subsequent revival. Maybe they are, maybe not and certainly these assumptions have been challenged more recently. But let us gently steer away from such controversies and have fun with some of the sayings and observations that so beautifully illuminate this beautiful and uncanny time of year
- ‘May Goslings dead and gone, you’re the fool for thinking on!‘
This is a tradition from the north of England when like the pranks played on the first of April.
The tricks played on the first of May must finish at 12 midday else the offender will be teased and called a May Gosling!
- To calm bees or stop them swarming, 16th century style… “A little durt cast up on high, doth end the quarrell presently”.
So recorded Thomas Tusser in 1557 in his advice concerning correct husbandry for May. This is a prime time for honey bees to swarm, a natural way for them to perpetuate their species but is dreaded by some bee keepers as it will reduce honey yield. Tusser also wrote…
…the old inhabitants being wearie of their dwellinys doe leave their hives, then must you fall to ringing of Pans and Basons, to fear of bring don the runaways.
Ther fights…amongst themselves or one hive with another are easily stickled.
I would have thought the noise would make the bees more cranky but what is especially interesting to me about casting ‘a little durt’ is that it resembles a much older Anglo-Saxon charm to calm a swarm of bees:
Take earth with your right hand and throw it under your right foot, saying:
I’ve got it, I’ve found it:
Lo, earth masters all creatures,
it masters evil, it masters deceit,
it masters humanity’s greedy tongue.
Throw light soil over them [the bees] as they swarm, saying:
Sit, wise women, settle on earth:
never in fear fly to the woods.
Please be mindful of my welfare
as all men are of food and land.
It may be that throwing dust in the air calms the bees in a similar way to a smoker as used by modern bee keepers.
- Don’t cast a clout, till May is out!
There are still frosts and sometimes even snow showers in May so keep your woollies on till the end of May!
- ‘Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date‘
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 18.
It is interesting to note that prior to 1582 England was using the Julian calendar and so May Day would have been two weeks later than now. This may be reflected in certain prose and references prior to this date as certain flowers are now not in bloom so early. That two weeks may have also made all the difference to outdoor celebrations also!
And finally, here is a final verse from the Night Song. It has many versions and still sung on May Eve.
The moon shines bright, and the stars give a light,
A little before it is day,
So God bless you all, both great and small,
And send you a joyful May.
The Night Song, Hertfordshire 1823.