May Traditions and Superstitions
Welcome to the merry month of May. Named after Maia, the Greek goddess of spring, fertility and growth, May has long been regarded as a time of celebration in the northern hemisphere to mark the end of the dark months of winter and welcome in the coming light of summer.
Be like a flower and turn your face to the sun – Khalil Gibran
if you were lucky enough to get the day off work to celebrate the May Day holiday, you might well have spent it in the company of friends and family, enjoying some local festivity, catching up with spring chores, or simply making the most of a well-needed lie in.
Or in my case, writing this blog post.
In days of old, however, May Day was considered one of the most significant festivals in the Pagan calendar. Many of the customs, traditions and superstitions we associate with this special event originated from the agricultural and spiritual rituals of our ancient Celtic and Anglo-Saxon ancestors. Some of these rituals have even older roots, dating back the time of the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians.
The Gaelic May Day festival of Beltane ‘Fire of Bel’ is one such tradition that’s still celebrated in many parts of Scotland and Ireland, by lighting bonfires to welcome in the new season. In Edinburgh, the arrival of summer is celebrated with a yearly fire festival. Thousand gather on Calton Hill to watch a dramatic display of live theatre, acrobatics, drumming, dancing and bonfires that truly encapsulates the wild spirit of our pagan ancestors. During the ceremony, The Green Man is killed as god of winter and reborn in his spring form. The bonfires are put out and relit with a piece of wood from the previous year’s festival.
In my neck of the woods, it was once customary for the townsfolk of Peebles to light fires on the 1st of May, whereby they would burn any winter bedding in order to start the new season afresh. Although this tradition eventually died out, the Beltane fair that accompanied it was revived in the later part of the 19th century to combine with the 900 year old yearly Common Riding tradition of the Riding of the Marches. Held every year in June rather than May, the town is decked out in its burgh colours of red and white flags, during which there is a week long celebration of rideouts, sporting events, fancy dress processions, bands, and, of course, the all important crowning of the Beltane Queen.
More traditionally, Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer where livestock were put out to summer pasture. Rituals to the gods were held to ensure protection of crops and cattle from disease and encourage fertility of the soil. Household hearths would be quenched and later relit from the kindled bonfires, the flames and smoke of which were deemed to hold protective powers. People and cattle would walk around the bonfires, sometimes leaping over the flames.
In some parts of Scotland, this fire ritual involved marking a slice of oatmeal cake with charcoal. Each blindfolded gatherer would take a slice and whoever chose the marked piece would have to leap over the fire three times, or pretend to throw themselves into it as a symbolic gesture of human sacrifice. When the fire died out, the revellers would then smear their bodies with the ash, sprinkling the remains over the crops and livestock to protect them from evil spirits and disease.
Elsewhere in the UK, other May Day celebrations include Morris and Maypole dancing, the crowning of the May Queen and the rampaging of the Obby-Oss (hobby horse) through the winding streets of Dunster and Minehead in Somerset and Padstow in Cornwall.
The origin of Maypole dancing remains a topic of much debate. Some scholars are of the opinion it has roots in Germanic paganism, who regarded trees as sacred symbols of growth, death and rebirth, and would carry out many elaborate rituals in order to protect them. However, others believe the phallic symbolism of the May pole can be attributed to an ancient fertility rite, and the dance of ribbons suggestive of the sexual union between the male and female dancers as they weave their ribbons together to create new life. The dance is often accompanied by The Green Man – also known as Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Hood or The Garland King, who dances in a circle around the other ribbon bearers in celebration of the rebirth of summer.
Back in the 16th and 17th Century, yellow flowers such as primroses, marigolds, hawthorn, gorse and hazel blossom were gathered and given as bouquets, or made into garlands for May Day, which were then strung over doors, windows, and even around the necks of milking cows. During the ‘Merry Month’ people also decked themselves in greenery, oak leaves and flowers to bring them luck and protection. It’s thought the tradition of ‘Bringing home the May’ originated from the Roman Floralia, a flower festival held at the beginning of May in honour of the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, Flora. Hawthorn, in particular, was regarded by the ancient Greeks as a symbol of hope, marriage and birth. Decorating a May bush with flowers, ribbons and painted egg shells was also common practice in many households and villages, until eventually being outlawed by the Victorians due to the rise in bush stealing between neighbouring residents. *Bites tongue*
Song on May Morning
Now the bright morning Star, Day’s harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The Flowery May, who from her green lap throws
The yellow Cowslip, and the pale Primrose.
Hail bounteous May that dost inspire
Mirth and youth, and warm desire,
Woods and Groves, are of thy dressing,
Hill and Dale, doth boast thy blessing.
Thus we salute thee with our early Song,
And welcome thee, and wish thee long.
It was also common for people to visit holy wells on May Day to pray for good health, performing rituals such as walking east to west around the well and leaving offerings of coins, ribbons and clooties ( strips of cloth traditionally used to wrap a clootie dumpling while it cooked) to the fairies and elementals. Hence the saying, ‘Ne’er cast a cloot till May’s oot.’ The first water to be drawn and drunk from the well – ‘the top of the well’ was believed to be as potent as the Beltane dew, protecting whoever drank it from evil. According to folklore, May Day dew possesses magical properties, and if a maiden goes out at sunrise to wash their face in the dew it will preserve their youthful complexion and help rid them of skin ailments such as pimples and freckles. I suppose it’s never too late to give it a try, though knowing my luck I’d probably roll in stinging nettles – or worse!
The fair maid who, the first of May,
Goes to the fields at break of day,
And washes in dew
from the hawthorn-tree,
Will ever after handsome be.
– Mother Goose
Less favourable May superstitions include:
- Never wash blankets in May or you’ll wash one of the family away.
- Those who bathe in May will soon be laid in clay.
- It is dangerous to sleep out in May as you could be taken away by the fairies, like poor old Thomas the Rhymer. Fairies held their greatest power during the month of May. To prevent a child or animal being snatched and a changeling left in their place, rituals would be performed to ensure their protection, e.g. placing a piece of spent coal under the cradle or in the byre, or even scattering primroses over the threshold as fairies can’t pass over these flowers.
- The call of a cuckoo on May Day can bring ill luck if it’s heard from the north, and good fortune if comes from the south. If it’s heard from the west it will bring success, and from the east, luck in love.
- It is considered unlucky to marry in May, hence the saying, ‘Marry in May, rue the day.’
I’ll take that last one with a pinch of salt since I did marry in May. The stone in my engagement ring is the May birthstone – an emerald, also known as ‘the stone of successful love’ which is thought to enhance loyalty, partnership and friendship. Who knows, maybe that will be enough to cancel out said omen. Not that the course of true love has always run smooth. In fact, sometimes it’s been more guns than roses. But, as we’ll be celebrating our 21st wedding anniversary this year, we must be doing something right. Long may our emerald luck last!
And, as if on cue, the blossom on our cherry trees have bloomed in time for our anniversary.
While this particular May has brought its fair share of joy, it’s also been tinged with sadness. My step dad passed away at the beginning of the month, and it’s to him I dedicate this blog post. Of course, he will be sorely missed by all who loved him, but his memory will live on – in our hearts and in the enduring buds of May.
Love is a circle that doth restless move
In the same sweet eternity of love. – Robert Herrick
If you know of any other May traditions or superstitions, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you!