May Day May 1st

Bringing the Maypole, Bedfordshire. Image from ‘Romantic Britain’

Maypoles were often stored during the year. A few days before May Day they were repainted, and bedecked with May Garlands – mostly made from Hawthorn. The Maypole used in London in 1660 was 134 feet high. Tall straight trees were used, sometimes of Larch, and they might be spliced together to get the requisite height. John Stow says that each parish in London had their own Maypole, or combined with a neighbouring Parish. The main Maypole was on the top of Cornhill, in Leadenhall Street, and it was stored under the eves of St Andrew’s Church which became known as St Andrew’s Undershaft as a result.

Padstow holds, perhaps, the most famous May Day festival on May 1st. Padstow feels very ‘pagan’ or do I mean it is fuelled by an enormous amount of drink?

Here is a video, watch until you see the ‘obby ‘orse and the teaser dancing.

The celebrations begin on May Eve because the Celtic calendar starts the day at Dusk. This seems strange to us even though we perversely ‘start’ our day at Midnight just after everyone has gone to bed! The other choice, and maybe the most logical is, Dawn, but Dawn and Dusk are difficult to fix. Midnight was chosen by Julius Caesar when he created the Julian Calendar. Midnight has the virtue of being a fixed metric, being half way between Dawn and Dusk.

Celebrations centred around the Bonfire, and for the Celts was sacred to the fire God Belinus, and May Day was called Beltane. Bonfires continued to be a part of the celebration into the 16th Century, and in places until the 20th Century. According to folklore tradition, the bonfire should be made of nine types of wood, collected by nine teams of married men (or first born men). They must not carry any metal with them and the fire has to be lit by rubbing oak sticks together or a wooden awl twisted in a wooden log. The people have to run sunwise around the fire, and oatcakes are distributed, with one being marked with a black spot. The one who collects it has to jump through the fire three times. Bonfires would have been on the top of hills, or in the streets in London.

May celebrations have a similarity to Halloween, which was also a fire festival and both are uncanny times when sprites and spirits abound. Hawthorn was a favoured wood not only because of its beautiful may flower but also because it was said to be the wood the crown of thorns was made from. It had the power of resisting supernatural forces, so was used to protect doors, cribs, cow sheds and other places from witches. Witches, it was said, got their power to fly from potions made from chopped up infants. The best protection was Christening and the custom was that christening took place as early as possible and normally three days after birth. Shakespeare was baptised on 26th April 1564, so we celebrate his birthday on 23rd April. See my post for more on this subject.

Cribs would be bedecked with Hawthorn and protection might be augmented by a bible, rowan, and garlic. Babies born between May 1 and 8 were thought to be special children destined to have power over man and beast. Weddings were frowned upon in Lent and in May, so April became a popular choice for marriage.

After celebrations in the evening of April 30th, women would go out in the woods to collect May, other flowering plants, and to wash their faces in May Dew preferable from the leaves of Hawthorn, or beneath an oak tree, or from a new-made grave. The dew was said to improve their complexion and was also used for medical conditions such as gout and weak eyes. Thinking of one’s lover on May Day might bring marriage within the year.

May morning would commence with dancing around the Maypole, followed by feasting, and summer games.

June 21st Midsummer

A gentle reminder – Facebook post.

Midsummer Solstice is the 21st of June, but the Celtic version of it began when the Celtic Day begun, on June 20th, which we would call Midsummer Eve.

In the early medieval period the Church hijacked Midsummer’s Day and transferred it to June 24th St John the Baptist’s Day. The reasons is that St John was born 6 months before Jesus, hence the June 24th date.

Midsummer is a fire festival, dedicated to Belinus. His name might mean Powerful One or Shining One, and he is linked to Apollo, one of the Greco-Roman Sun Gods. His main festival is Beltane, May Day, but many of the attributes of May celebrations and indeed Halloween celebrations are also carried out in Midsummer.

John Aubrey in the 17th Century writes:

‘Still in many places on St John’s Night they make Fires on the Hills: but the Civil Warres coming on have putt all these Rites or customes quite out of fashion.’

John Aubrey, Miscellanies, 1695

Like May Fires, the fire should be made from wood donated from all farms in the area, and using a range of trees, ideally collected by 9 men and from 9 different trees. Blazing branches should be carried sunwise around the fields to bless the crops, and it was good luck to jump over the ashes of the fire.

To prepare for Midsummer remember that it is, like Halloween, uncanny when Hobgoblins, Fairies and Sprites, are, like in Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, all abroad making mischief.

First in your line of defence is St John’s Wort, known as Chasse-diable, Demon Chaser, Fuga Daemonum amongst many other appellations it could be used to keep demons away, and to exorcise haunted houses. John Aubrey in Miscellanies talks about a haunted London house which was cured by a Doctor who put St John’s Wort under the pillow of the bed at night. Bankes Herbel 1525 says:

‘The virtue of St John’s Wort is thus. If it be put in a man’s house, there shall come no wicked sprite therein.’

Vervain, yarrow, corn marigold, and orpins were also used often woven into garlands, and hung around the necks of cows, or on door lintels as protection. If the St John’s Wort withered the picker was to die or at least endure disappointment. If orpins entwined themselves on Midsummer’s Night, marriage would follow.

A girl seeking love should walk around the Church seven or twelve times (accounts vary!) at midnight scattering hempseed, and singing:

Hempseed I sow
Hempseed I hoe
Let him that is my true love
Come after me and mow

In the SW of England there was a custom to watch the church porch on Midsummer Evening, when the spirits of all the living people of the village could be seen entering the church. Those not seen coming out again would surely die as would the watcher who fell asleep.

Orpine, (Sedum Telephium) aka Live Long, Life Everlasting was valued for the length of time it remained fresh after being gathered. Medicinally, it was considered good to use outwardly to cool scaldings, inflammations, and wounds.

Sedum_telephium by Bernd Haynold wikipedia

St John’s Wort has a reputation for helping with depression, menopausal symptoms, ADHD, anxiety and other conditions.

St John’s Wort Photo by Lex Melony on Unsplash

Thanks to the ‘Customs and Ceremonies of Britain’ by Charles Kightly.