May Day

No, it’s not a plea for help, but rather the subject of this week’s blog.

If you’re visiting Cliffe Castle this week (or, indeed youvisited us last week), you may have noticed these signs starting to appear appearing around the building


The Exhibition fairies are busy....
The Exhibition fairies are busy …

We’re busy installing the Fairy Folklore exhibition at Cliffe Castle (look for further linked blogs in the future) and it got me thinking about some of the folklore and traditions normally associated with this time of year.

A little bit of background reading - a number of folklore related books
A little bit of background reading

We’re all used to the May Day Bank holiday, but we don’t always think about what the name is referring to.

Some claim that the festivities are linked the Celtic Beltane festival, others that it could be linked to the Roman  festival of Florialia, the Roman goddess of flowers and springtime.  The goddess was represented as a small statue wreathed in garlands and was carried in procession past sacred blossom-decked trees to celebrate springtime. It’s though the Romans took the tradition to countries they conquered, including Britain.  Both are linked to rebirth, springtime and fertility – all of which are evident in May.

One tradition that’s no longer really followed is that of ‘Maying‘, or collecting  the May-blossom.  Collected before sunrise, a branch of the flowering Hawthorn left outside a door was said to bring good fortune to the recipient.

Image of a flowering hawthorn - also known as may blossom
Flowering Hawthorn, also known as May Blossom

It was known as May-blossom because it traditionally flowered in May.   Appropriately for us, hawthorn also has a strong association with fairies -a single hawthorn tree was often to said to be a meeting place for the fairies and the tree should not be cut down. Cutting a branch or a sprig while it was in flower was a good luck charm but cutting it at any other time was said to incur the wrath of the fair folk.  William Allingham in his famous poem The Fairies makes a note of it:

“By the craggy hill-side,
Through the mosses bare,
They have planted thorn-trees
For pleasure here and there.
If any man so daring
As dig them up in spite,
He shall find their sharpest thorns
In his bed at night”

Something else that might be collected before sunrise on May day was the dew – it was said that if you collected the dew on May Day morning and washed your face in it, it would ensure that your skin would be healthy, and might even enhance your attractiveness.  That’s a tradition that still within living memory for some, who can recall relatives getting up early to catch the dew.

The fair maid who, the First of May,
Goes to the field at break of day
And washes in the dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever after handsome be.

And have you heard the old saying ne’er cast a clout till May is out ?

Clout is an old word for cloth –  or in this case, clothes.  The saying warned against packing away the thicker clothes or layers until the May blossom was fully out, and the warmer weather was set to stay.  Given the snow that tried to fall last week, I’d say it’s still worth bearing in mind when choosing what to wear!

This blog entry is by no means a complete list of all the traditions associated with May, but I hope it’s given you some food for thought.  Come back later in the summer for more blogs linked to the Fairy Folklore exhibitions.

In the meantime, I’m off to set an alarm and perhaps give the dew a try….

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