The ancient rite that is May Day originated in the English countryside before the Middle Ages as a celebration of the halfway point between spring and summer. But it is perhaps best remembered as a popular Victorian festivity. On May 1st, children and young women would gather wildflowers to be woven into garlands and arranged in baskets. Maidens would dab their faces with the May Day dew, believed to preserve beauty. A rousing round of “Ring & Run” ensued, whereby fresh bouquets of spring blossoms were delivered in secret to doorsteps around town. If one was caught in flight, a kiss was claimed. Donning fresh white linens, youths gathered around the Maypole—fashioned from a large birch branch with ribbons fixed to its tip. Around they would dance, circling the pole with ribbon in hand whilst singing:
All hail gentle spring
With thy sunshine and showers,
And welcome the sweet buds
That burst in the bowers;
Again we rejoice as thy light step and free
Brings leaves to the woodland and flowers to the bee,
Bounding, bounding, bounding, bounding
Joyful and gay,
Light and airy, like a fairy,
Come away, come away.
Come see our new garland so green and so gay;
‘Tis the first fruits of spring and the glory of May.
Here are the cowslips and daisies and hyacinths blue,
Here are the buttercups bright and anemones, too.
~Flora Thompson (1878-1947)
The fairest maiden of the group was then crowned “Queen of the May” and thereby entitled to preside over games and the serving of punch and cake.
May these joyful May Day traditions live on! Take a moment to revel in a dewy cutting from the garden or leave an anonymous bouquet upon the front stoop of a neighbor, friend, or love interest. Let us wish a warm welcome to the month of May!
Source: Ban Breathnach, Sarah. Victorian Family Celebrations. p. 106-113. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1990.