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Day 121, Part 1: Happy May Day!

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Here in England's green and pleasant land the origins of May Day festivities are lost in the mists of antiquity: they predate the Roman invasion and may even go back to the Stone Age. While the Brits don't have exclusive claim to celebrating the arrival of spring (many of the northern European countries - Sweden, Germany, Poland, and others), the traditions of gathering flowers, choosing a Queen of the May, and folk dancing are certainly well-rooted in English custom.

Until I came here I didn't realize that a) hawthorn is known as 'common hawthorn'; b) it grows everyplace and can be found as small bushes right up to good-sized trees; and c) it blooms in the spring, covered in white blossoms. My first spring in the UK I would occasionally catch reference to 'May's in bloom,' and for a while I thought that was referring to 'The month has brought out spring flowers.' Turns out 'may' is just another name for 'hawthorn.'

As has been pointed out to me, the old song about 'Here we go gathering nuts in May...' has lost its proper meaning. If you remember that hawthorn is may, and think in terms of gathering small bunches - knots - of thin branches to weave into garlands, the rhyme suddenly makes sense, as nuts are gathered in the autumn, not the spring. Think in terms of 'Here we go gathering knots of may--' and it suddenly becomes clear.

Legends about the first of May abound: girls should wash their faces in dew from a hawthorn bush to remain youthful and beautiful... decorating your house with flowers would bring prosperity during the coming season... and since going a-maying (gathering said flowers) was generally left to 'the young people,' more than one romance blossomed - another reason that May and June became popular wedding months! Sometimes a boy would go out early and collect a small basket of fresh-picked blossoms, then leave it anonymously on the doorstep of the girl he fancied - a May Basket from a secret admirer.

BakerBarbara and I went to elementary school together, and her blog mentions the Maypole Dance, which was an annual tradition there. We had grades from one to six (no public kindergarten in those days), and each year one of the sixth-grade girls would be elected May Queen. The first Friday in May was a night of celebration, with the presentation of the Queen, her King (also selected by the sixth-graders), and a court consisting of a couple children chosen from each of the lower grades. Then each class would participate in a program, presenting skits, singing songs, reciting verses, perhaps putting on a short play - with the whole culminating in the Maypole Dance.

That belonged to the third grade (no idea why), and it's not easy to get it right: there is a very specific pattern the dancers must follow, moving in and out and around each other to weave the ribbons in a pattern around the pole - mistakes show up very clearly! I had thought Maypole Dancing was still to be found here, but although I have on occasion seen it, it seems to be a random thing, not at all predictable, and not for the most part an annual tradition. More hit-or-miss, I guess, when someone has enough people interested in trying it.

In Lymm the May Festival takes place the first weekend in June. I know, I thought it sounded funny too, but if you think about 'Queen of THE May' - as in 'hawthorn blossoms' and not as in 'month of May' you can see it makes sense. Roses abound by then, as much of the may has gone by, and locally the whole affair is often referred to as 'The Rose-Queen Festival,' but it stems from a very old tradition, presumably from a time when the may bloomed later, or perhaps the festival date was changeable depending when spring arrived, so it is still very definitely linked to the ancient custom.

At any rate, one year I did see maypole dancing at the festival, which took place up in the May Field (you see? it was a village green, a common, although not in the center of the village, and as such was always used for the festivities, to the extent it took on the name). Alas, it's not an annual event, but I will watch the programs as they're published to see if a Maypole Dance is scheduled for this year, and if so - I will be there!

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