Magical May is full of promise

Dancing up the sun on Mayday      Photo courtesy of Yorkshire Coast Morris
Dancing up the sun on Mayday Photo courtesy of Yorkshire Coast Morris

Fresh leaves and blossom carry the promise of summer. Who can resist the magic of May?

Longer days, warmer weather and nature bursting with life add up to spring fever. It’s easy to see how past generations saw this as a time for celebration.

Parades of all kinds took place on May Day with Robin Hoods, Maid Marians, May Queens and Morris men. Everyone danced. Couples around the maypole, milkmaids carrying milk-pails decorated with flowers. Even chimney sweeps took to the streets, aided by Jack-in-the-Green, a creature half human, half hedge.

May 1 was a significant time when our economy was agricultural. Animals left their winter quarters and went out to their summer pasture; the dark half of the year was ending and the light half beginning.

In Britain’s north and west where the climate was hardest, people feared this time of transition. On May Eve evil powers were bent on a last fling, bringing illness or stealing infants and young animals. Bonfires were the traditional remedy.

The Celtic festival of Beltane first appears in an Irish manuscript from around the year 900. This mentions two fires, and cattle driven between them to protect against disease.

Beltane fire was kindled in a ritual manner, using friction to ignite wood. This “need-fire” was powerful against witchcraft and illness in animals and people. As the flames died down folk leapt over the embers, sometimes carrying children in their arms.

Beltane fires burned in the Scottish Isles and Highlands, Cumbria, Wales, Devon, Cornwall and the Isle of Man. Some survived into the nineteenth century. Elsewhere in England, events marking the beginning of summer were less defensive.

England’s first mention of May Day comes from Lincoln around 1240, where the bishop complained about priests joining in “games, which they call the bringing-in of May.” They were foraging in the woods to collect greenery, along with everyone else.

May Day was a huge festival until Cromwell’s Commonwealth. But after the restoration of Charles II the May revels sprang back. Even when the Industrial Revolution drew workers from countryside to town, people continued to celebrate. If they couldn’t find greenery, they used ribbons instead.

Holy well

On May Day morning, young women rushed to draw the “cream o’ the well”, because whoever got their water first would have their wish granted.

Some ancient springs and wells were rich in minerals that relieved ailments. In the village of Harpham, between Driffield and Bridlington, there’s a well reputed to cure eye disorders and headaches. More unusually, a dose was said to tame difficult animals.

Harpham’s well is dedicated to St John of Beverley, a healer born in the village who became Bishop of York. John died at Beverley in 721 and his bones lie in the Minster.

On the Tuesday nearest May 7, the saint’s feast day, the railings surrounding the well are garlanded with greenery. There’s a service in the village church and a procession to the well where the rector gives a blessing.

During May, dew had special powers too. It cured sickness when gathered from ivy, hawthorn or oak leaves. And dew from grass worked wonders for the complexion. Why not try this bit of May magic — it’s supposed to work all month.