A Merrie May – Folklore celebrations

 These works are compiled from various internet sources and almanacs. All links have been left in for ease of access to them. Thank you and enjoy!


May Day, Beltaine

It’s the merrie, merrie month, as the English have long called the beautiful month of May.

Their ancestors, the Anglo-Saxons, called it thrimilce, because at this time of year cows can be milked three times a day. The modern name is thought by some scholars to come from the Latin ‘Maia’ (consort of Jupiter, mother of Hermes, or Mercury), the goddess of growth and increase. It is also connected with major, because in the Northern Hemisphere, May is a beautiful time of Spring growth.

Despite the congeniality of the month, it was also an old belief that May is an unlucky month in which to be married. This superstition, current even today, is Roman in origin and was mentioned by the Roman poet, Ovid. Lovers should wait until the propitious month of June before tying the knot.

Those born in the first three weeks of May were born under the sign of Taurus, and from May 21 to June 20, Gemini is the ruling sun sign and represents the mythological twins Castor and Pollux, the twins of Leda, who appeared to sailors in storms with fires on their heads.


Many old sayings refer to May, but of course one must remember that they generally refer to the month in the Northern Hemisphere.

One old proverb goes, “Cast not a clout till May is out”, folk meaning, do not shed your winter clothing (clout) too early in the year, because cold weather can still come. Maia is one of the Pleiades which rises and sets at the beginning and end of the agricultural season. Another says “Wash a blanket in May/Wash a dear one away”, indicating that death will strike the family or friends of those who do so. 

Some other May proverbs are:

Be it weal or be it woe,
Beans blow before May doth go.

Come it early or come it late,
In May comes the cow-quake.

A swarm of bees in May
Is worth a load of hay.
A swarm of bees in June
Is worth a silver spoon.
A swarm of bees in July
Is not worth a fly.

The haddocks are good,
When dipped in May flood.

Mist in May, and heat in June,
Make the harvest right soon.

A hot May makes a fat churchyard. 
(Meaning that many people will die.)


Festivals in May

The Northern nations have many festivals in May because the weather turns to a suitable temperature and Mother Nature turns on her most beautiful colours and fragrances.

For example, the Macedonians, on the Orthodox Feast Day of St George (May 6), dance the hora and perform various ancient rituals and games associated with eggs, as we do at Easter.

At Helston, Cornwall, on May 8, the townsfolk have for centuries celebrated Furry Day, with dances, songs and rites whose origins and purpose have long been lost in the mists of time.

The English for two hundred years or more celebrated Shick-Shack Day (or, Oak Apple Day) on May 29, the birthday of King Charles II who brought back monarchy to Britain after the strict Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell.

May, however, is known especially for May Day, the first day of the month, which in olden times was celebrated as the great, colourful Spring festival, with May poles that were danced around, and fairs at which dramas, often featuring Robin Hood and his “merrie men”, were performed. Morris dancers were and still are a delightful part of the English May Day. 

In the Celtic tradition, now popular with neo-Pagans, the day is called Beltaine (or Beltane). The Scots used to light bel-fires on the hilltops and drive their cattle through the flames in a ritual which was either to destroy vermin and protect the cattle from disease, or to prepare the beasts for sacrifice.

May Day commenced in ancient Rome, with youths going into the fields, dancing and singing in honour of Flora, goddess of fruits and flowers. The goddess Bona Dea, too, was celebrated at around this time, in women-only rites.

In recent years, May Day became an annual celebration not so much of the glories of Spring but of the traditions of the labour movement.

Some May Day folklore snippets

Chimney sweeps’ festival
May Day was in olden times the first day of the London chimney-sweeps’ festival, a three day revel in which chimney sweeps wore gold paper and flowers on their clothes and hats. They also had their shovels and faces lined with pink paint and white chalk. They chose a grandly-dressed lord and lady from some other profession, the lady often being a boy in extravagant female attire. 

As part of chimney-sweeps’ revels it was customary for a boy to move about in a framework of branches covered in leaves. He was called Jack-in-the-green. Jack, a Green Man sometimes also showed up in London suburbs, hailing from the country, amusing the public with rustic dancing. He carried a flower-decked walking stick.

From time immemorial, bonfires have been associated with May Eve and May Day in Britain. Originally dedicated to the pagan solar god Bel, or Balder, in Ireland these fires were once called Balder’s balefires. Until the nineteenth century, May Day bonfires were still lit in the Scottish highlands, Ireland and the Isle of Man, among the peasantry.

In Britain it used to be customary today to go a-Maying, or gathering flowers and branches, particularly of the May bush.


May Queen
In old Britain on May Day, folk elected the Queen of the May, a pretty girl to preside over the day’s events, which usually meant sitting in a garlanded bower all day and being admired by the whole village.

The old British (and French) custom the Queen of the May today came from the ancient Roman veneration of Flora, May Queen and goddess of flowers and youthful pleasures, for whom a sexually licentious festival was held at this time of year. In some villages, children carried around a finely-dressed doll called the Lady of the May. With little copies of maypoles, they went about the village asking for a halfpenny.

May cows
Up until the early nineteenth century in Britain, on May Day milkmaids would dress up a cow in garlands. They, too, dressed in flowers and danced around the cow. In earlier times they were accompanied by a man wearing a bulky frame on which were hung flowers, silver flagons and dishes. The silverware was rented out at an hourly rate by pawnbrokers.

May cosmetics
On the morning of May Day, Scottish lasses used to go out early and wash their faces in dew, a sure potion for preserving beauty. In Edinburgh the favourite place to do this was Arthur’s Seat. Similarly, at Anhalth, Germany, girls did the same to get rid of freckles.

Royal May Day
In medieval England, even the king and queen joined in with the May Day festivities. Chaucer wrote that early on May Day Forth goeth all the court, both most and least, to fetch the flowers fresh.

May scapegoat
In old Scotland and Ireland, May Day rituals were, among other things, an attempt to stop the spread of witchcraft. Whoever received a piece of cake marked with charcoal served as scapegoat for witches, becoming a figure of terror and being pelted with eggshells. (By way of comparison, in Germany it was customary to throw eggshells at a disagreeable stranger.)

Garland Dressing, Charlton-on-Oxmoor, Oxfordshire, UK
A wooden cross is bedecked with Yew and Box tree leaves.

Unlucky weddings

From as early as Roman times comes the tradition mentioned by Ovid, and still prevalent in Europe, that May is an unlucky month in which to be married. This is probably because in Rome this was the month for the festival of Bona Dea (the goddess of chastity), and the feasts of the dead called Lemuralia.


Fair Flora! Now attend thy sportful feast,
Of which some days I with design have past;
A part in April and a part in May
Thou claim’st, and both command my tuneful lay;
And as the confines of two months are thine
To sing of both the double task be mine.
Latin poet Ovid, Fasti, v, 185, for Flora (Floralia) Apr 28May 3   Roman calendar

Oak before ash, we’re in for a splash, ash before oak we’re in for a soak.
Traditional British weather prognostication saying for May

Hoar-frost on May 1st indicates a good harvest.
Traditional English proverb

The later the blackthorn in bloom after May 1st, the better the rye and harvest.
Traditional English proverb

Nut for the slut; plum for the glum
Bramble if she ramble; gorse for the whores.
[Traditional English saying]: one should preferably leave            hawthorn at a friend’s door for their luck, but other plants are an insult. I suggest you leave the gorse at home.


Mary we crown you with blossoms today,
Queen of the Angels
And Queen of the May.
Contemporary folk song sung by Roman Catholic schoolchildren in the UK. The month of May is dedicated to Mary.


May crowning

May crowning is a traditional Roman Catholic ritual that occurs in the month of May of every year. In some countries, it takes place on or about May 1, however, in many United States Catholic parishes, it takes place on Mothers’ Day.


And forth goeth al the court, both moste and leste,
To feche the floures freshe.
Chaucer, referring to the practice of gathering flowers on May Day

The hawthorn‘s later orgiastic use corresponds with the cult of the Goddess Flora, and accounts for the English medieval habit of riding out on May Morning to pluck flowering hawthorn boughs and dance around the maypole. Hawthorn blossom has, for many men, a strong scent of female sexuality; which is why the Turks use a flowering branch as an erotic symbol.
Robert Graves (18951985), The White Goddess, p. 176

Sin no more, as we have done, by staying
But, my Corinna, come, let’s go a Maying.
Robert Herrick (15911674)

Hark! The sea-faring wild-fowl loud proclaim
My coming, and the swarming of the bees.
These are my heralds, and behold! my name
Is written in blossoms on the hawthorn-trees.
I tell the mariner when to sail the seas;
I waft o’er all the land from far away
The breath and bloom of the Hesperides,
My birthplace. I am Maia. I am May.
HW Longfellow (1807 – ‘82); The Poet’s Calendar for May



~ by meanderingsofthemuse on May 8, 2015.

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