Wednesday, 1 May 2013

The plants don’t know it yet but it is May Day.

The plants don’t know it yet but it is May Day. 

 Hawthorn or 'May'
In the medieval and Tudor / Stuart times this was one of the most important days in the country calendar.   Even as late as the early 20th Century it was celebrated in many English villages, including Childwall, a suburb of Liverpool where my Mum was born.  

But by the time this picture was taken in the late 1920s the Childwall festival, like many others had become a Summer Fair with the crowning taking place around Midsummer’s Day.  The maypole and its dancing had also moved to these midsummer festivals in many places.  In many villages the Second World War killed off those traditions which had just about survived the First War. 

The origins of May Day go back to Beltane or Beltain - the Gaelic May Day festival. Most commonly Beltane was held on 30 April–1 May, or halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It was especially observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Irish it is Bealtaine , in Scottish Gaelic Bealltainn and in Manx Gaelic Boaltinn or Boaldyn. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals; along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh.  On the night of Beltane young people would often stay out all night and do what young people do when they stay out all night.

But to go back to the subject of the plants, quite a few have May in their names to show their importance for the May Day festival.  These include the May Flower itself – the Hawthorn.  I have no doubt someone somewhere in Southern England has managed to see a Hawthorn flower already but the vast majority is many weeks behind because of the long winter.  

 Of equal significance with the Hawthorn was the Rowan which helped to protect one from the less kindly of the elementals on May Eve.

In parts of Ireland until the late 19th century a small tree, typically a thorn tree, would be decorated with bright flowers, ribbons, painted shells, and so forth. This custom was also apparent in a few English villages and persists at Appleton near Warrington in Cheshire.

The Appleton Thorn

Holy wells were often visited at Beltane, and at other Gaelic festivals like Imbolc and Lughnasadh. Visitors to holy wells would pray for health while walking "sunwise" around the well. They would then leave offerings. The first water drawn from a well on Beltane was seen as being especially potent, as was Beltane morning dew. At dawn on Beltane, maidens (those who were left after the previous night's celebrations!!) would roll in the dew or wash their faces with it.  It would also be collected in a jar, left in the sunlight, and then filtered. The dew was thought to increase sexual attractiveness, maintain youthfulness, and help with skin ailments.

May Bubbles and May Blobs were local names for the Marsh Marigold.  I haven’t been out enough to know if they are blooming in the wild but the ones we have in our garden pond are certainly not in evidence yet. 

One of the main flowers that many people of my mother’s generation recalled being used in May Day celebrations was the Cowslip which was made into Tisty-tosties for the day.   

Tisty-tosties were the flowers of the Cowslip tied together using wool with the stalks on the inside so as to make a cowslip ball.  These could then be tied on a stick and carried or thrown as a ball from one to another with a rhyme being used to find the name of one’s intended.  Sometimes loose flowers were strewn at the doors and windows for good luck (or to keep out bad luck).  Cowslips and Marsh Marigolds would also be fastened to cows and equipment for milking and butter making.  Our garden cowslips are out and have been for a couple of weeks so at least they aren’t late this year.

By contrast our Guelder Rose (Viburnum opulus), May Rose or May Ball is nowhere near flowering yet.  

One of it’s alternative names in days gone by was King’s Crown because it was used in the May King’s crown so it obviously should be out on May 1st.   

So much for Global Warming so far as 2013 is concerned.


  1. An excellent post....It reminded me of so many things I'd forgotten.

  2. Spring is slow to arrive in Ohio also. I'm looking forward to my lilac bushes blooming...they smell so lovely! When I was growing up we always celebrate May Day with homemade flowers and poems that we made for our Moms. My boys did the same thing when they were year they gave some flowers to our next door neighbor. She was very surprised but pleased. It was a fun tradition. I'm not sure if it still happens today. Now I'm the "elderly" neighbor! Maybe some flowers will show up on my door tomorrow! (I'd settle for some blooming ones in my yard!) Thanks for all the wonderful information about this day!

  3. You're up late -- or perhaps you couldn't sleep' You usually post just about the time I go to bed. Lovely to see all the wild flowers and be reminded of some of the old customs. I love hawthorn. The last year I visited England it was in full and over - abundant bloom. My but you really have had a late spring and we have had an early summer -- I feel so guilty when I read blogs from England.

  4. A lovely post - thank you.

    The hawnthorns in Exeter aren't quite out yet, but our marsh marigolds have been flowering profusely for the last couple of weeks. I'd not heard of their other common names before.

  5. You sure know your flowers. Fantastic photos and information!

  6. An interesting excursion into May customs, thank you! Here in Germany, the maypole is still very much in evidence in many communities here in my area, the raising of it usually part of a small local fair.
    And the last night of April is called Walpurgisnacht, when all witches meet and celebrate wild parties, dancing around fires and (allegedly) flying about on their broomsticks. Also, "Tanz in den Mai" (dance into May) is popular with those who do ballroom dancing; balls are held in many venues.

  7. We don't raise "maypoles" until Midsummer, but 30th April (Valborgsmässoafton, equivalent of German Walpurgisnacht) is celebrated with student cortèges/pranks, bonfires, choir singing and other greetings of spring. Not unlike Beltane in that it includes young people staying out all night and doing what young people do... :) I suspect many outdoor celebrations were probably moved indoors this year though, because spring is very late here as well, with very cold winds blowing. Myself I did not feel the least inclination to go out yesterday. 1st May is Labour day and a holiday in Sweden, and it's been sunny, but still with chilly winds.

  8. The morning dew makes you look younger? May I have a gallon please? :)

  9. We still celebrate May Day (May 1st) here, and it is a government public holiday. It is now also celebrated at Labour Day.
    We still have a folk dance group (The Landship) that dances the May Pole dance. I must write a post on them soon.
    Thanks for enlightening me on the flowers and their meanings.

  10. I learned - too late for this year - that we have a local Morris Men group that dances in the new dawn on Mayday. May get up early next year and go to see them.

  11. Holy cats, what a great Beltaine blog post! Love the photos and all the great info... I love the way plants carry stories with them. Thanks for this great celebratory gathering of lore!

  12. In company on May 1st I happened to say that I don't suppose many people now know the significance of the day. One person mentioned it as an ancient spring celebration. No one even could remember that it is International Labour Day when I reminded them: despite being the day of the huge parades in Red Square and so on around the world.

    1. I suspect part of the reason for forgetting it is Labour Day is the fact that the Bank Holiday - originally introduced by the Labour Governement for Labour Day is now the first Monday in May and therefore rarely falls on 1st May.

  13. Celebrated in Liverpool too when I was a child. Still remember being the
    May Queen for the day.

    Reminds me too of the saying "never cast a clout till May's out" Always we thought it meant 'keep your vest on'. Not until later did I find out it means 'until the May blossom is out'


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