May Day

the hawthorn queen

she waxes full in fertile grace
queen of quick and fay, she reigns
in mantle green and seemly face
quelling fear and mortal pains
eternal mother, ever maid
undying wisdom in her glance
deathless wierd is on her laid
to spin th' unceasing wheel of chance
again, she comes in crown of thorn
to lave the earth in blessed dews
through her travail is life reborn
hope and beauty she renews
thus verdant may unfurls soft leaf
and opens petals to the sun
and so we dance and banish grief
for summer’s now begun

The seventh moon is the Flower Moon. It is new between 23 April and 21 May. It is full between 7 May and 4 June. This is the time of riotous blossom and rainbow color splashed everywhere. You can cut vases of fresh flowers every morning and still have plenty in the garden. Bees and butterflies are busy all over the garden. The early baby birds are fledging. And it finally feels warm in the north. (In the south, it’s verging toward too warm.) This is the month of Mother’s Day and graduations. School usually lets out at this time. In the United States, Memorial Day ushers in barbecue season. There is asparagus and rhubarb, peas and all manner of greens, cabbages and radishes and many of the roots. And usually sometime in this month, the ice cream stands will open their doors. This is the best time to clean out the freezer and pantry to prepare for the summer’s harvest.

The season of Easter shifts to the season of Beltaine at about Arbor Day, at least before Floralia which begins on April 27th. If Easter is the time of children and chocolate, Beltaine is for young adults. (Though it’s probably still time for chocolate.) This is the celebration of sensual fertility, when all of nature is focused on creation and passion. May Day happens in this season. This is the beginning of summer in the ancient Celtic calendars. In fact, it is one of a very few established calendrical names that has come down to us. In the old calendars, Beltaine often marked the time when livestock were led to upland pastures for summer grazing. Often the whole family would relocate to a summer cabin, since cows need twice daily milking at this time. A focus of May Day festivals was on livestock protection. Cattle were led near the ubiquitous bonfires to be essentially smudged in the smoke. The idea is that this may have had a real beneficial effect by removing parasitic insects. I’m not sure that smoke in sufficient quantity to knock the lice and ticks dead (if that’s even possible, given the indestructibility of ticks) wouldn’t first make the cows and humans very ill. Maybe it’s a memory of a tradition of rubbing down the barn-bound dairy cows with ashes to get the bugs out before heading to the summer pastures.

The season of Beltaine gives way to Midsummer the last weekend in May. This is also the weekend that all the nightshades get planted out of doors. It is possible to do this earlier but why? There is plenty to eat in the spring garden. So you might as well hold off until frost is absolutely not going to happen before putting out those tomatoes, chiles, sweet peppers, eggplants and potato slips. There is no sleep at all while this is happening but sunrises are just glorious!

You will note that holidays tend to thin out as the weather warms. This is not a coincidence. Our calendrical cycle is largely based on the agricultural year, and this is a very busy time for farming. There aren’t days off when the sun shines long and the growing season is going strong.

The astronomical seasons — the ones identified in our calendar — more closely match the thermal seasons than they do the solar cycle. Solar winter is when the days are shortest and there is the least potential for solar energy. Winter begins in early November and reaches its midpoint at the solstice, around December 21 (in the Northern Hemisphere). Solar summer has the longest days and the most sunlight. Summer begins in early May and reaches its full strength at the solstice. For old agrarian communities of Europe, which would have used the solar cycle, 1 May was the beginning of summer, and it was ushered in with the ancient celebration of Beltaine, the year’s biggest fire festival. Bel means bright or fortunate. Tene means fire. Whether referencing the sun or the ubiquitous May Eve bonfires, Beltaine was named for the good luck of warmth and light.

Bonfires were lit to honor the sun and welcome in the summer. On Beltaine, the people of Ireland (and possibly other Celtic-language lands) extinguished their hearth fires and drove their livestock from winter confinement to a high point where they would kindle two ceremonial fires. They would drive the animals between the fires for fertility, purification and protection from disease and thence on to summer pastures, thick with new grass. The fire itself was believed to have curative and protective powers.

Hearth fires were rekindled by carrying a brand from the bonfire to the house. A peculiar superstition grew up around this. If a woman came to the house asking for fire, she was believed to be a witch, coming to steal all the butter from the house. The householder should absolutely not share out the fire, except if she had the foresight to deck the doorway with May greenery which prevented all witchcraft from crossing the threshold — and had the double benefit of blessing the dairy. On the other hand, bringing the greenery through the door, especially if it contained hawthorn in flower, was a sure way to introduce faerie mayhem into the household.

In 1769 Thomas Pennant recorded a Beltaine ritual in Scotland. Bannocks, ceremonial oatcakes, were baked in the bonfire. Nine knobs were baked onto the bannocks, each of which was dedicated to some preserver of the herds or some particular animal that caused harm. Celebrants stood near the fire facing away from it then broke off the knobs and tossed them into the fire over their shoulders, invoking the protection baked into the bannock. Using the same gesture, they offered the knobs to the wolf or fox, the predator, asking that these animals turn their predation elsewhere. Later the knobs were replaced with crosses, and the hot cross buns were rolled down hills. If they landed cross side down, it was a sign of ill-luck.

Another bannock ritual involved burning a portion of the cake and then breaking it apart and putting the pieces in a bag. People drew the cake bits from the sack. Whoever got burnt pieces had to leap the bonfire three times to assure a good harvest. This ritual is thought to be an echo of older scapegoat ceremonies in which the recipient of the unlucky portion was burnt in the fire. I remain skeptical of most human sacrifice stories because most of them originate in propaganda pieces written long after the events they purportedly described happened. Also, there’s just not a lot of physical evidence for any of it to have been a common occurrence, happening every year. But more importantly few humans would abide by such a stupid system. Kill off at least one healthy young person from the community each year? Not likely. Maybe slaves, but how many slaves were there out in the farming hinterlands? And I just can’t see the parents of the village standing by while their kids were sacrificed for what would clearly be no good empirical reason. The harvest would be good or bad regardless of the bonfire ritual. In any case, in the 18th and 19th centuries these titillating tales turned into rituals of leaping the fire to bring luck to the harvest. Probably while the farmers stood alongside, shaking their heads at the tomfoolery. As farmers are wont to do.

Roman incursion into the Northern lands produced a hybrid holiday, May Day, with aspects of both the Celtic Beltaine and the Roman Floralia, which honored the goddess of flowers, Flora, but also celebrated the Bona Dea, the good goddess, and the household Lares. Floralia was focused on human fertility and licentiousness, but also had lavish floral displays with every surface garlanded in bright blooms. During the Medieval Warm Period, it would have been possible to make garlands of greenery and flowers even as far north as Scotland by early May. It’s also possible that the celebration would not have taken place on a fixed date, but rather when the hawthorn, the May, bloomed. There are many preserved traditions that would not have worked well if the May Bush was bereft of blossoms. 

One such was bringing a blooming hawthorn to the center of the village and decorating it with colored eggshells, ribbon and other bright tidbits. Communities competed for the most elaborate bush. Some even planted a permanent hawthorn tree in the village center for the annual celebration. Rival communities would not always compete fairly, going out to steal the competition’s May Bush under the cover of darkness. There are records of wages paid to guards for the bush. There are also a few transactions where the community took up a collection so the local lads could more effectively trash the rival May Bush.

Somewhere in all this business the Maypole tradition evolved. This is not a Celtic tradition though. It’s almost nonexistent in Ireland, showing up neither in recent memory nor in legends. It may be an evolution of the May Bush festivities, though both were known to happen in some communities, especially in East Anglia. Both traditions involved erecting a tree in the common, decorating it, and gathering around it on May Day to feast and dance. There were even Maypole thefts between rival communities. But the Maypole was normally just the trunk of a young tree and was typically much taller than a bush. Records show that the type of tree used for a pole was highly variable, with birch, ash, oak, and pine all being used; it was the height and girth of the trunk that were important.

Cutting and bringing the Maypole into the village was the central ritual act in the tradition. Young folks would go out into the forest on May Eve — doing what young folks will do — and would process back into town with the largest trunk they could haul. The top branches were usually left attached and to these were added garlands and sprays of flowers with ribbons and trinkets. Some communities added local flavor to the decorations in the form of cakes and loaves of bread. Later, the stylized ribbon dance that we know as “dancing the Maypole” was added to the festivities. Originally, this was also a competition — the more complicated the braid the better. By Victorian times, it was more of an innocent kissing game.

Perhaps the Maypole is completely disassociated with Beltaine and celebrates human fertility. It’s fairly indisputable that going to gather in the May, whether that involved erecting the pole or garlanding the village, was a thin excuse for woodland canoodling. “Of a hundred maids who enter the woods on May Eve, scarcely a third come out maiden still,” or so whined the Elizabethan Era prudes. I strongly suspect that few were maids to begin the night. Because teenagers. They weren’t all getting up before dawn just to gather May morning lady’s mantle, and that radiant glow wasn’t from rolling in the dew-damp meadows alone.

The processions into town quickly turned into full parades with a regular cast of characters. Robin Hood and Maid Marian led a motley assembly of Morris Dancers and mummers. At Padstow in Cornwall, the famous Padstow Hoss dances around the town. The giant hobby horse, played by a cloaked man wearing a horse’s skull, lumbers about, dying and being revived and pulling women under the cloak for luck. (Only in England.)

Much later, another sort of procession took place on May Day. The Labor Movement in the United States adopted this day as a general strike in 1886. This began as a peaceful march, but in Chicago tensions within the movement between socialists and trade unionists sparked violence at the McCormick Reaper factory on 3 May and again in Haymarket Square on 4 May. This tragedy was all but forgotten in the US but became a rallying point and a national holiday for many other nations. Even Pope Pius XII recognized May Day as a day to honor labor, though being vehemently anti-communist he proclaimed 1 May to be the feast of Joseph the Worker in 1955 — displacing poor Saints Philip and James in the process.

And so we have the modern celebration with a little of this and a snippet of that and really not a whole lot of connection. What is happening in your part of the world in early May? What traditions mean something to you? There are so many more than I’ve included in this short essay. I didn’t even get to the night of the witches on the mountain, Walpurgis’ Night. (Because that was last night, don’t you know. My broom is still damp from the rain on the way back.) Go out and see what nature is doing today. Go see what’s happening in the garden. Go find out what your culture did to welcome in the summer. If your ancestors lived elsewhere, find out about the summer welcoming festivals of the cultures who live(d) where you are now. Then make your own fire festival!

But mind you leave the hawthorn outside, or the faeries will cause no end of mischief this year. That, and there will be an intolerable absence of butter.


Blackburn, Bonnie & Leofranc Holford-Strevens. The Oxford Companion to the Year. 1999. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun.1996. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Marquis, Melanie. Beltane: Rituals, Recipes and Lore for May Day. 2015. Llewellyn Publications: Woodbury, Minnesota.

Montley, Patricia. In Nature’s Honor: Myths and Rituals Celebrating the Earth. 2000. Skinner House Books: Boston, Massachusetts.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021