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Mayday Lore


its history and Folklore

History of Mayday


hamaypoledancing1Bringing In The May


  • or; just why are we dancing around this beribboned thirty foot pole anyway???
  • The custom of dancing around the may pole dates back into the mists of time and comes to us through our European ancestry. It is believed to be a survival of an early pastoral festival that accompanied the first turning of the herds out to wild pasture. All the ritual observances were intended to increase fertility in the herds, fields, and homes.Beltane, the Celtic May Day, is still celebrated in Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, Wales, Brittany, and the Isle of Man, with varying continuation of the ancient practices.
  • The typical European May Day Celebration was a three step process:

The Eve

  • On May Eve or early May Day morning, it was customary to go to the woods and fields to gather green branches and flowers. Mayflowers in England were usually white hawthorn. In the United States and Canada, it's arbutus, hepatica, or spring beauty.
  • Gathering flowers and branches and bringing them home symbolized bringing home the May, bringing new life, the spring, into the village.
  • Many beliefs surrounded this magic time. Washing in May dew on May Eve or before sunrise May Day morning was a common practice to keep the complexion beautiful and the person lucky for a year. In England, it was believed that Mayflowers picked before sunrise would prevent freckles. In Ireland, Beltane began at moonrise on May Day Eve and marked the beginning of the third quarter of the Celtic year. Witches and fairies were said to be abroad in great numbers. It was bad to be out late on May Eve. It was worse luck to sleep out; and it is said in Ireland yet, that whoever is foolhardy enough to join a fairy dance on Beltane Eve will not be set free till Beltane next year. In Ireland the house is blessed and a prayer said by members of the family on May Eve.

The Day

  • A May Queen (often also a king) was chosen and crowned among the young people, who went singing from door to door through the village carrying flowers or the May Tree and soliciting donations for a merrymaking in return for "the blessing of May".Carrying the May tree and garlands from door to door symbolized the bestowing and sharing of the new creative power that was stirring in the world. As the group went from door to door, the May bride sung to the effect that that those who give will get of natures bounty throughout the year. All the symbolic figures in the little drama, the boy, the girl, the tree, the flowers, were believed to embody, and hence have the power to bestow, new life and fertility on crops, cattle, and women
  • The ancient Scandinavian people welcomed spring with mock battles between summer and winter in which summer always won.These were still a feature of the May Day Celebration on the Isle of Man late into the 19th century.
  • In some parts of France some jilted youths would lie in a field on May Day and feign sleep. If any village girl was willing to marry him, she woke him with a kiss. The pair then went to the village inn together and led the dance which announced their bethrothal. The boy wass called the betrothed of May.
  • It was a common belief in the British Isles that getting your head wet in the rain on May day prevented headache for a year.
  • In the American south, Afro-Americans believed May Day was a good day for love charms and divinations such as looking down a well reflected in a mirror to see your future spouse's face. In South Carolina, it was considered good luck to plant watermelons on May Day before sunrise, but never to get married on May Day or the bride would die within the year. In Mississippi, May butter was recommended against witchcraft.
  • In Ireland, the one great ritual of the day was building the Beltane bonfire. It was kindled either by a spark from flint, or by friction. The people danced sunwise around it, the cattle were driven rthrough it, or between two fires, to protect them from ills, and the people crept through it to prevent disease, to forestall bad luck, invite good luck, and to cure barrenness. Contact with the fire was interpreted as symbolic of contact with the life-giving sun.
  • A Beltane Cake, usually an oat or barley cake, was divided into portions, drawn by lot, and eaten. Whoever drew the charred piece was the sacrificial victim. The Beltane Carline (Hag) was the person who got the charred piece. People mimed throwing him into the fire. In some localities, they threw him onto the gtround and pretended to quarter him. After he had been through the fire he was treated as though dead for a year. The sacrifice is still sometimes mimed by victims running or jumping through the fire three times, but the selection of a victim for actual sacrifice is believed to be the original object of the Beltane cake.
  • In the Scottish Highlands, the cakes were specially made with a pattern of raised lumps or knobs. Each of these was dedicated to some elemental being or animal believed to be the preserver or destroyer of domestic animals. As the group faced the fire, each person broke off one of these knots, flung it over his shoulder, and said something like, "This I give to thee, preserve my sheep."
  • In the Isle of Man, rowan branches were carried sunwise around the fire and then taken into the homes and hung over the byre doors to avert evil from family and animals alike. In Ireland today the rowan branch is still hung over the house fire on May Day.
  • Later the Christian Church took over the Beltane observances. A service was held in the church, followed by a procession to the fields or hills, where the priest kindled the fire.
  • The Dance
  • Cutting, setting up and decorating the May Tree, Pole or Bush, and dancing around it, is the most recognized May Day ritual. Sometimes this is a communal dance around a beribboned tree set up in a central location, but in some villages, a May tree or bush is set up in every front yard, decorated by the family, and danced around by the family group.
  • The traditional Maypole Dance is performed around a tall central pole with ribbon streamers. Two opposing circles of dancers weave in and out, braiding the ribbons in a pattern around the pole. In the 15th and 16th centuries, dramatic characters representing Robin Hood, Jack in the Green, and the Morris Dancers took part in elaborate spectaculars.
  • The Morris Dance frequently concluded with a Maypole winding to the tune of "Sellengers Round".
  • May Day celebrations are widespread throughout Europe and similar ribbon and pole dances are found as far away as India and South America.

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