the thorn 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 weird 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
May 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.) May 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. Usually sometime close to May Day, the ice cream stands will open their doors. This is the best time to clean out the root cellar, freezer and pantry to prepare for the summer’s harvest. And if you haven’t done it yet, clean out the chicken coop and other animal housing. They won’t mind sitting out in the warming sun and will definitely mind if that same sun starts cooking the winter layers of slop.
Here is what a goat sounds like when she discovers a fouled bed.
The season of Bealtaine 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. In our modern calendars, we start the seasons on the solstices and equinoxes, but these are more properly considered inflection points in the year — not beginnings and endings, but peaks and valleys to the seasons. Our calendrical seasons do correspond to heating and cooling cycles, but not to length of daylight which is principally what governs the annual growth cycle.
The solar cycle is, therefore, the true agricultural year and what I tend to follow. 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 — who would also have used the solar cycle to govern annual rhythms — 1 May was the beginning of summer, and it was ushered in with the ancient celebration of Bealtaine, the year’s biggest fire festival. Bel means bright or fortunate. Tene means fire. Whether referencing the sun or the ubiquitous May Eve bonfires, Bealtaine was named for the good luck of warmth and light.
Bonfires were lit to honor the sun and welcome in the summer. On Bealtaine, 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 Bealtaine 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 that represented destruction to the wolf or fox, predators and disease, asking that these agents of harm turn their predation elsewhere.
Through time, the ritual evolved so that the cakes eventually became cheese rounds and the knobs were replaced with crosses. These waxed discs of cheese were rolled down hillsides. If they landed cross side down, it was a sign of ill-luck. Some rituals were made into contests with teams of cheese rollers vying to roll their lump fastest or furthest. A fun cross-breed of bonfire and rolling fate games, is the fire wheel in which a wagon wheel is set alight and then sent careening down the hillside. Supposedly, bad fortune follows if the flames are doused before reaching the bottom. I tend to think this might be a better fate than introducing a rolling flame into the corn fields and village greens.
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 nearly all 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 (where are the piles of bones and charred teeth?).
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 Bealtaine 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 civic and parish 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. In 1660, to celebrate the end of the religious wars in England, Charles II erected a 40-meter maypole on London’s Strand. This pole stood for nearly half a century, solidifying the king’s renown as ‘the merry monarch’.
For centuries, 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 and greenery with ribbons and trinkets. Some communities added local flavor to the decorations in the form of cakes and loaves of bread. Much 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 Bealtaine and simply celebrates human fertility without the agricultural overtones (or gravity). 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 from dawn to dusk. 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 bricolage of 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 particularly like the Finnish tradition of mead-soaked picnicking with thousands of friends…) 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 blooming 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.
May Day: celebrating the coming of spring in art. Posted 30 Apr 2021 by Victoria Rodrigues O’Donnell (https://artuk.org/discover/stories/may-day-celebrating-the-coming-of-spring-in-art)
From the Book Cellar
For all the traditions, extant and historical, around May Day, there aren’t a large number of kids’ books. Of course, many of the traditions began as decidedly R-rated fertility festivals, but still… the Victorians thoroughly washed the prurient focus out of even such things as erecting a hard pole in the middle of the village and lavishing it with affection. So surely, we could have a few more books on dancing and parades. But here are the ones I’ve found thus far:
The Rainbow Tulip by Pat Mora, illustrated by Elizabeth Sayles (1999, Puffin Books). This is a story of Mora’s mother and the immigrant community of El Paso in the early 1900s.
On the Morn of MayFest by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Marla Frazee (1998, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers).
Grey Rabbit’s May Day by Allison Uttley, illustrated by Margaret Tempest (1963, William Collins Son & Co). There is also a 2000 edition put out by Collins entitled Little Grey Rabbit’s May Day.
Here is a story that has special meaning for me. Carla Aragón created a picture book on cascarones, a Hispanic tradition often associated with Easter but, as Carla says, one that actually takes place around May Day as often as not. My bookstore was opened on the first weekend of April, and Carla came to our opening celebration to make cascarones and lead the dance. This led to a remarkable amount of colorful confetti under the book cases, a delightful discovery when we closed the store. Recently, Albuquerque Education Access TV recorded Carla reading her book and put the video on YouTube. So, while not strictly a May Day tradition, I thought I would share. (In Spanish.)
©Elizabeth Anker 2023