The Merry Month of May: Ancient Mayday Traditions

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Ancient religion was based on the cycle of nature, and in the cold northern realms, the coming of spring and its explosion of new life had enormous religious significance for our ancestors. Even the name May gives away the meaning of the festival. Maia was an ancient Greek goddess of spring, so the month of May was special to the goddess who had brought new life. The name has some connection with the word Ma/mam, meaning mother, so it is likely that the ancient Britons had a goddess with a similar name. Certainly the modern Welsh for Mayday is Calan Mai. The Scots and Irish call it Beltane, the Gaelic for the month of May, which emphasises the solar aspect.

Mayday Customs in Ireland and Scotland

The Scots and Irish share a common Gaelic heritage, the Scots having come from Ireland to eventually conquer the Picts, who probably were not much different from them anyway. Central to the celebrations were Beltane fires. in ancient times the rule in Ireland was that no one could light a fire on Mayday before the chief druid had lit the ceremonial fire. Legend has it that St Patrick challenged the Druids by doing just this, but this is not proven.

In Scotland people sometimes jumped between two fires as a way of purifying themselves. Juniper wood was occasionally added to the flame, as juniper was considered a purifying plant, which, as it grows easily in Britain, was quite common and easy to find. Beltane fires are at times lit today by modern pagans. In the West of Ireland there still remains the custom of decorating the Maybush, the plant symbolic of the goddess. This was originally to give her honour.

British Mayday customs

Ancient British May revels were rather exciting, as people “let their hair down” for a day and a night. Young people used to spend the Mayday eve in the woodland, collecting boughs and greenery to take home with them. This was to identify with the spirit of May and the renewal of life that it brings. The Puritan writer, Stubbes, writing in his “Anatomie of Abuses” declared that young people enter the woods on Mayday Eve and scarcely any come back virgins. Stubbes wanted the custom banned, but the people did not, so it carried on. It is suggested that people with the surnames Robson, Hobson and Dobson are descended from the children produced in such revels, but no shame was attached to them.

Next day the young people would go around garlanded, singing at doors and passing round a collection bucket for the festivities. It was considered churlish to refuse them. The peak of the festival was dancing round the Maypole. Symbolically the Maypole is a tree sacred to the goddess, and the strands by which the revelers bind themselves to it are symbolic of their dedication to her. Most village Maypoles were small, but some were made to rival church spires in size, such as the one in the Strand in London, which was 134 feet high.

Mayday characters

The most popular character is the May Queen, a young girl who is symbolic of the goddess. She is still seen in pageants at this time or at other May festivities. There used to be a May king, but he fell from fashion quite early. Jack-in-the-Green is still found occasionally. He is a figure clad almost entirely in a cloak of greenery, symbolizing the woodland sprite, sometimes known as Robin Goodfellow. In Anglo-Saxon times he was a half-wild nature spirit, known as Puca, now known as Puck, whom we find in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Kiplings’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. He symbolizes the wild male sexual energy that complements the May Queen’s feminity.

Christianization

Unlike Stubbes, the medieval Catholic Church accommodated to ancient festivals. The month was dedicated to Mary the mother of Jesus, and her statue was often garlanded with flowers as a sign of fertility. Even up to the 1960s in Catholic Mayday services the May Queen, a girl of about seven, would crown the statue of Mary with flowers. In Bedfordshire there was the May Carol, which celebrated the ancient traditions of collecting branches, but which thanked God the Father for the land’s fertility:

“I’ve been rambling all the night,
the best part of the day
And now am returning back again
And I have brought you a branch of May.