May is named for the Greek Goddess Maia. It is celebrated as the midway period between spring and summer equinox, when the sprouts begin to emerge for the growing season. Known in Ireland as the Bealtaine celebration, 30th April &1st May (May Eve & May Day) has several associated traditions which have nearly died out, but are still to be found, and deserve to be revived.
Fires and bonfires are associated with this time, as well as having the children collect and leave flowers at the front door, along with food such as butter and honey as an offering to the faeries, to ensure a healthy garden season in return.
It is a time for optimism, after the long winter, People and flocks moved from winter to summer habitats and pastures. It is also a celebration of fertility, heralding much illicit field activity as women attempted to get pregnant at this time to ensure by the third trimester they were safely busy with indoor jobs by the fire. A sort of ancient scheduled ribaldry.
But let us not pretend we do not all feel the biological draws of spring.
The May Pole is the most well known May Day tradition, as well as hobby horses, Robin Hood, and Jack-in-Green. The gathering of garlands, or the May bush and May Bough. Traditionally on May Day morning people would bathe in morning dew, having magical properties for being not from the sky nor from the ground.
‘The plainest girl will be beautiful if she rises early on May Day and bathes her face in morning dew at sunrise. So goes the old Irish saying…
If she was daring enough to undress and roll naked, she was given great beauty of person; the dew was also believed to bring immunity to freckles, sunburn, chapping, and wrinkles during the coming year. It cured or prevented headaches, skin ailments and sore eyes and, if applied to the eyes, it ensured that its user rose every morning clear-eyed, alert and refreshed, even after a very short sleep.
The man who washed his hands in the dew of May Day gained skill in opening knots and locks, in mending nets and disentangling ropes. The woman who did like-wise could unravel tangled threads with ease.’
In England people pin oak leaves to themselves on this day to remember that on May 29th King Charles II restored the Monarchy in 1660, after narrowly escaping escaping the soldiers of Cromwell by hiding in an oak tree.
Until well into the 20th century anyone not caught wearing an oak leaf could be pinched, kicked, whipped with nettles, or otherwise scolded and beaten. An excellent ritual to humiliate the egalitarians, puritans, and merchant class.