Warm welcome to magical May

Milkmaids, in their best gowns, dancing on May Day.
Milkmaids, in their best gowns, dancing on May Day.

by Heather Elvidge

Spring is in full force and summer is on its way. Is there anyone who doesn’t welcome May?

Now the ground has had a soaking there’s a rush of growth and trees are dressed in fresh, bright leaves.

Collecting new foliage is the oldest way to mark the first of May. Records show that people were “bringing-in the may” in the thirteenth century; they were still doing it in Victoria’s reign.

In villages and towns folk hung greenery over their front doors because it brought good fortune. Any tree would do – birch and hazel were popular – but a branch of hawthorn bearing posies of blossom was thought the luckiest of all.

All levels of society were keen to celebrate the coming of summer. Royalty went a-maying; guilds and town corporations organised processions and shows for everyone to enjoy. Cold, dark, hungry winter was just a bad dream.

In magical May even the dew had special properties. Women ventured out at dawn to wash their faces in dew, hoping to make the skin fair. They soaked cloths and took them to invalids who couldn’t leave their beds; dew from ivy, hawthorn or oak leaves was believed to relieve ailments.

Wells, too, were potent on May Day. Maids were up early so they’d be the first to draw water, and have their wish granted by the “cream o’ the well”.

Nobody kept May Day during Cromwell’s Commonwealth, when that kind of thing could bring trouble to the door. But following the Restoration the May revels were not only revived, they began to spread throughout the month.

Naturally, there was music and dancing. Couples danced in a ring around the maypole, which was hung with garlands, not ribbons. Milkmaids danced for their customers, accompanied by a man carrying a tray of silver, which was called the garland. Hobbyhorses, usually seen at midwinter, came out with the Morris dancers. Today’s Morris sides keep up the tradition, dancing at dawn to welcome the sun.

When the Industrial Revolution drew workers to the towns, people tried to keep their May customs. If they couldn’t find leaves 
and blossom, they used ribbons.

From the late eighteenth century, Jack-in-the-Green, a man disguised as a thicket, joined the chimney sweeps dancing in urban streets. In Victorian London Jack was accompanied by daring young women, wearing white stockings and – gasp – short dresses.

Northern towns had a strong tradition of decorating working horses on Mayday. It seems to have begun in the eighteenth century, when coach horses were given ribbons on their scheduled stops at inns.

With the spread of railways the coaching industry faded away, but the May custom had already caught on with delivery vans, brewers’ drays, hackney cabs and horse buses. The next step was organised parades of trade vehicles, with horses covered in ribbons, flowers, garlands and little flags.

So let’s welcome May. Bring in leaves and flowers, eat, drink and dance if you feel the urge. And don’t cast a clout till May be out.