Our discussion of Beltaine and May Day festivities up to this point have focused on the supernatural danger of the day and the need for fire rituals to ward it off. Let us now focus on the more celebratory rituals that ushered in the Summer season.
Around the year 1240 a bishop in England complained to his archdeacons of priests who demeaned themselves by joining ‘games which they call the bringing-in of May’. Indeed, we can find several medieval documents of young men and women making merry on the first day of May. What exactly was meant in some of these cases is unclear, but in each the term was a shorthand for flowers and young foliage fetched to celebrate the coming of summer, named after that season’s first month.
References to this custom in England begin with the bishop’s grumble as cited above. They multiply as soon as English literature became sufficiently developed to include lush background detail for narratives, which was in the fourteenth century. Indeed, one of the individuals to write about May Day was none other than the father of English literature himself – Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote in the late 1300’s. In his Court of Love, Chaucer writes:
‘Forth goeth all the Court, both most and least
To fetch the flowers fresh and branch and bloom’.
His heroine Emelie goes out at sunrise
‘to do May observance’ by gathering ‘flowers pretty white and red
To make a subtle garland for her head’.
Interestingly, both Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I were known to have participated in May Day festivities. However, a number of other British royals of medieval times were apparently too prim and proper to engage in such empty frivolity. Indeed, under the reign of Elizabeth the custom was attacked by some evangelical Protestants as carrying a risk of debauchery. The story was told of ‘ten maidens who went to set May, and nine of them came home with child’. The theme was taken up again in the next reign by an anonymous writer to whom May Day was a time when ‘divers dirty sluts’ wandered the countryside, getting into clinches with their lovers in ditches.
However, during the same period, some authors referred to the May morning merrymaking in completely straightforward and benevolent terms, as an acceptable fact of life. Others, in the early seventeenth century, went further and extolled those very aspects of it which drew the worst criticism. A Pleasant Countrey Maying Song, probably published in 1629, gleefully portrayed the courting of a young couple among the flowers and blossoming thickets on May Day, ending with a hint that the girl got pregnant and the chorus:
“Thus the Robin and the Thrush,
Musicke make in every bush.
While they charm their prety notes
Young men hurle up maidens cotes.”
Thus the behaviour of young people on May Eve and May Day became a cliché of scandal and of titillation alike…a view that continues to this very day, as reflected in the rhyme “Hooray! Hooray! The first of May! Outdoor sex begins today!” which in turn led to the writing of the Jonathon Coulton song which basically explores the same theme. In modern-day Neo-Pagan terms, Beltaine is certainly seen as the most sexual of the eight Sabbats. However, it must be understood that the intent of such traditions is not as an excuse to engage in naked orgies, but as part of that overall celebration of the life force. As the Charge of the Goddess says:
“All acts of love and pleasure are My rituals.”
From a Pagan perspective, sexuality is seen as a direct expression of that life force, and thus is considered sacred. Certainly the ways it is expressed might be seen as rather erotic and graphic but it is also fully felt, in a context in which sexual desire is honored – not only because it is the means by which life is procreated, but also because it is the means by which our own lives are most deeply and ecstatically realized.
In any case, the whole idea of May Day as a day of overt love-making may have been an exaggeration – according to the work of demographic historians in the late twentieth century, there was in fact no rise in the number of pregnancies at this season, in or out of marriage. The boom in conceptions came later in the summer. In practice early modern people seem to have found the night of the 30th of April generally too chilly, and the woods generally too damp.
In the more relaxed social atmosphere of the Restoration period of the seventeenth century, references to ‘Maying’ shifted from its sexual connotations to focus more on the “garlanding” of May Day – i.e. the greenery. Such botanic celebrations may have originated in Rome with ancient Roman celebrations honoring Flora, a fertility goddess of Spring whose festival Floralia was celebrated around May 1st. The dawn expeditions of youth to bring in greenery and flowers are recorded in detail in various parts of the British Isles, and a 1672 document tells of the young men blowing on cow horns, while the young maids carry about their parish garlands of flowers, which afterwards they hang up in their churches.
The impulse to celebrate the arrival of summer in Europe’s northlands, by bringing home blooms and leaves, is probably ageless. It is certainly recorded from Ireland eastwards all the way to Russia, at least wherever people were not more concerned with the hopes and perils of the migration to the summer pastures. The custom continued into the nineteenth century, even in growing industrial areas, sometimes with ribbons substituting for greenery.
Speaking of greenery, one of the interesting things to note is that from the very beginning of these Beltaine and May Day documentations, we often see reference made to the types of plants, flowers, and trees which would be used during these festivities. Oak seemed to be the wood of choice for bonfires, but rowan trees are mentioned – not for use as kindling, but as branches to be carried while dancing around the flames, as rowan was believed to have special powers against malicious spirits, and thus provide protection against evil. In some cases the rowan would be hung over doorways and in barns for this purpose, or even fashioned into crosses to provide it with additional symbolic power. Other protective plants included primrose, birch, hemlock, rosemary and hawthorn.
Across much of the British Isles, the flowering hawthorn seemed to be the foliage of choice – in fact, it is often known as the mayflower in England. However, opinions seemed to vary from one area to another – in some locations the hawthorn was considered lucky, in other areas unlucky. Certain villages believed it to be a harbinger of death (since it was often found growing in cemetaries), while others considered it to be sacred to the fairies, and thus not to be touched.
Sometimes the choice of greenery was used to express affection or animosity – in some villages the young men would leave a wreath of hawthorn blossoms on the door of the girl they liked, while a girl of loose manners would find a pile of hawthorn branches left at her door, and a bossy, scolding woman would discover a bunch of nettles tied to the latch. Other areas employed a rhyming slang: most kinds of thorn meant scorn, rowan signified affection, holly declared folly, briar marked a liar, and a plum in bloom proclaimed ‘married soon’.