In the northern hemisphere the 1st of May is celebrated as the arrival of spring and a harbinger of summer to come. There are many folk traditions across Europe, that are still practiced today, that relate to this time of the year and all seem to have their origins in ancient celebrations of the Earth’s burgeoning fertility. We know that the Victorians were avidly interested in folklore but how did they interpret and incorporate fertility celebrations into their world view and its obvious associations with sex, intemperate behavior and fecundity?
What does Mrs Beeton have to say?
May, the Milk-month of our Saxon Ancestors, is said to have derived its name from the pastoral custom of English maidens – the Mays of our older authors – of rising early on May morning, and proceeding to the meadows to milk the cows, and elect the most beautiful of their companions as the Queen of the Mays. In process of time, when the name was established, and the custom in which it originated had become a tradition, another Mayday custom had crept in, when, according to old Herrick, Not a budding boy or girl that day, But is got up and gone to bring in May. Mrs Beeton’s Garden Management.
In this quote Mrs Beeton is referring to two country traditions that the Victorians, with their love of all things floral, were keen to embrace and promote. The first custom is the tradition of electing a local ‘Queen of the May‘. The May Queen is usually a young girl dressed in white and crowned with a wreath of spring flowers. The Queen presides over a village festival or local celebration for the day. In folk tradition the May Queen represents the Earth Goddess in her aspect as the Maiden. Maia, Mary, Flora and Persephone and the multitude of other virginal spring goddesses relate to this tradition across many cultures. From what I have read it seems that the Victorians promoted this aspect of the traditional Beltane celebrations as it is less ribald than many others (shagging a stranger by the local bonfire, spilling the blood of the May Queen to promote summer crops or getting stonking drunk and dancing around dressed as a horse). Dressing up like the Goddess of spring seems to have appealed to Victorian aesthetics (the internets are full of Victorian pictures of girls dressed as the May Queen) and obvious love of dressing up (Mmmm not a very scholarly conclusion but I’m going with it).
The second tradition that Mrs Beeton alludes to is ‘Bringing in the May’. Bringing in the May means to rise up early on the first of May and collect flowers and greenery from woodlands for personal adornment, decorating houses and village streets. In large Victorian households this meant that the Head Gardener would be expected to put on an extra fine show around the house in early May. In present day Cornwall this tradition is still honored in Padstow where the whole village is decorated with branches of greenery in preparation for the Obby Oss celebration.
In Helston on May the 8th villagers collect Lily of the Valley from the surrounding countryside to wear as buttonholes during Flora Day celebrations. In the Victorian language of flowers the Lily of the Valley symbolizes the ‘return of happiness’. On Flora Day only people born in Helston are entitled to wear the Lily. Men wear the Lily in its upright position and women wear their buttonholes pointing down (this might be to allow ease of telling gender once all the ale has been drunk).
Flora Day is believed to be a very ancient tradition where villagers dance and sing through the main street and each others houses all day. Historians differ on how old they think the tradition is – most talk about this festival going into abeyance during the Victorian era due to the influence of the temperance movement on quietening down the drunk revelries.
The Victorian’s seem to have embraced Maypoles with maidens dancing around winding and weaving ribbons back and forth but were less keen on anyone talking about their obviously phallic associations with fertility.
The Obby Oss (Hobby Horse) at Padstow is a festival that I have watched twice and it is really something to experience in person. The crazy looking horse puppet rolls and stumbles into the crowd, the villagers dance, drink and sing all day as the ancient ‘heart beat drum’ leads the Oss round and around the village. The whole day feels very pagan but much of its tradition and custom are impenetrable to outsiders like myself. The Obby Oss is documented back to the 1300′s; it may be older!
Historians mention that it has undergone a number of revivals with its popularity waxing and waning from era to era. In Donald Rowe’s book Padstow’s Obby Oss and May Day Festivities he talks about the Maypole being removed from the celebrations during early Victorian times. He portrays the Victorians as being in two minds about the Obby Oss festival on one hand idealizing it as an example of English rustic charm and on the other hand deriding the locals for the debauchery and drunkeness.
May Day Down-under!
In Australia by contrast May is the turning of Autumn into frosty winter weather. As you would expect European settlement did not transplant May day spring celebrations into the culture of white settlement. The thing that I find really interesting about colonial culture is how little of English folklore became incorporated into Australian culture – actually white Australia has very little folklore beyond Ned Kelly (bushranger), football (intensely boring) and mateship (?). Spring for us Aussies is September and the 1st of September is Wattle Day.
Wattle Day has its origins in the surge of nationalism that seems to have occurred late in the Victorian era in Australia. I can imagine that my Cornish ancestors, waking in a canvas tent, on a cold and frosty May morning on the gold-fields in Ballarat in 1852 perhaps feeling a little bereft at not being able to find Lily of the Valley. I wonder if they walked into the bush and picked sprigs of green and tucked them into their buttonholes. I can imagine that they felt along way from home in a very alien land.
Unite and unite and let us all unite, For summer is acome unto day, And whither we are going we all will unite, In the merry morning of May. Padstow Morning Song.