‘Tis The Merry Month of May!
May is a special month. No other month begins or ends on the same day as May.
It’s possibly named after the Greek goddess Maia. But the Roman poet Ovid said that May is for the Maiores, the Elders, and June is for the Iuniores, the Young People.
The Druids believed that Mayday divided the year in half and was the first day of Summer. Men and their girlfriends leapt through bonfires for good luck.
Flora, the Roman Goddess of fruit and flowers, was celebrated from the 28th April-2nd May.
Apparently ancient Babylon had Maypoles woven with ribbons and girls danced round them to encourage fertility. This is denied by some people, who insist that John Ruskin invented the beribboned Maypole in the 19th century.
May 1st became the Feast of St Joseph the Worker and the whole month is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
May’s birthstone is the emerald, which means love or success.
The lily of the valley is the birth flower.
Every village had a Maypole in the Middle Ages. Mayday, or Garland Day, celebrated the first day of summer. It was a convenient day for a holiday after long, hard days of intensive farming throughout the Spring. Bringing the Maypole in from the woods was often a raucous affair, with some extra private celebrations taking place in the woods!
Many unique, and eccentric, customs have evolved in May, and they’re still evolving.
It was said that, ‘Marry in May and you’ll rue the day!’
On Mayday young girls would rush outside to wash their faces in the morning dew. They believed it would give them a lovely complexion and get rid of their spots and freckles.
On the 1st May, Morris dancers all over the country perform their traditional dances to welcome the dawn.
The Wessex Morris Men begin their day on the Rude Man, also known as the Cerne Abbas Giant, in Dorset. The procession then progresses down to the village and at 7am they dance in the square.
At Chantry Post, on the South Downs, the Thakeham Morris Men perform a few dances in front of several relatives, joggers, and some dog walkers (as they told me!)
Jack in the Green is a pagan festival that has been revived in modern times. Rochester, in Kent, holds their Sweeps Festival the first week in May. The chimney sweeps used to welcome the summer so they could clean everyone’s dirty chimneys. Jack in the Green is woken at dawn, and the street is filled with dancers and music.
In 1976 Whitstable in Kent revived the festival, followed by Hastings in 1983. It is now a major event.
The Maydayrun also takes place then, with thousands of bikers travelling from London to Hastings Seafront. It has been held for over 30 years.
The Spalding Flower Festival, in Lincolnshire, has floats decorated with thousands of tulips parading through the town.
In the Derbyshire Peak District, the wells are also dressed with flowers, forming intricate pictures. It started hundreds of years ago and the true origins have been lost.
Dating back to the 5th Century, Beating the Bounds takes place in several areas. Parishioners prayed to God to protect their crops. It also provided the community with a boundary map during the Reformation.
It’s celebrated with Ganging Beer and Rammalation Biscuits.
In Sussex they hold Legover Day! It’s connected with fell-runners leaping over walls, stiles and streams on their route.
Bank Holiday Monday, 10am-3pm in Peterborough is the Stilton Cheese Rolling. Large round blocks of wood are rolled along the High Street. The winner gets a Stilton cheese and a bottle of Port.
Around the 8th May, one of the oldest customs in Britain, the Floral Dance, is held in Helston, Cornwall.
There are several celebrations involving Hobby Horses, including Minehead. And the Padstow Obby Oss in Cornwall is the oldest May Day celebration still taking place. It dates back to the 14th Century. The town’s full of bluebells, forget-me-nots, cowslips and sycamore twigs. Thousands of people come every year to see the Old Oss and the Blue Ribbon Oss. Celebrations begin at midnight.
In Hastings, Sussex again, dating back to medieval times, it’s the Blessing of the Sea.
29th May is Oak Apple Day, also known as Pinch-Bum Day and Nettle Day. It celebrates the triumphal return of Charles II. Everyone wore oak apples in their lapels or hats to symbolise when King Charles evaded capture from Cromwell’s troops by hiding in an oak tree.
Anyone not wearing them could be stung with nettles, or kicked and pinched!
Whit Sunday Evening in St Briavels in Gloucestershire, is Bread and Cheese Day. Thousands of spectators gather on Cooper’s Hill to watch a 7lb Double Gloucester cheese rolling down a steep slope, pursued by a crowd of running, rolling competitors. The winner gets the cheese.
Competitiors in the Tetbury Wool Sack Race run up Gumstool Hill with a 60lb sack of wool on their backs. I don’t know what the prize is!
The first Friday after the last Monday is the Costswold Olympick Games. (That’s how it’s spelt.) The main event is the Shin Kicking Championship, dating back to the 17th Century.
At sunset, white-coat-clad competitors stuff straw down their trousers, preparing for the match. Entrants grasp each other’s shoulders and try to kick each other’s shins. In mid-kick, they try to throw each other to the ground.
Britain is full of wonderful original and eccentric customs and traditions, dating back through the centuries. I’m sure that a lot of them leave a few bumps, bruises and sore heads behind after the celebrations have ended. But everyone has a good time.
Let’s hope that Health and Safety don’t manage to destroy them!