May Day

May Day

This is an edited version of a section from Our Troth Volume Three. It has been edited for internet reading. If you want the full version with full sourcing, check out our store!

By May in most areas, the worst of winter would be over, at least for the relatively well-off. Cows would be grazing and giving milk, chickens would be laying, and in maritime regions the weather would be calm enough for fishing boats to put to sea.

Bede’s name for the month of May, Þrimilce (“Three Milkings”; De temporum ratione 15, transl. Wallis, The Reckoning of Time, p. 54), reflects the bounty of the season: livestock would be grazing on the new pastures and giving plenty of milk. With food bountiful and the weather finally warm, people would have some time to enjoy themselves.

As with many of these medieval and later folk festivals, we cannot show that the traditional May rites and entertainments go back to pre-Christian times.

However, regardless of one’s faith, “the merry month of May” still offered a chance to rest, fresh food supplies, and mild enough weather that outdoor gatherings were comfortable. It’s hard to imagine that pre-Christian Heathens would not have needed a celebration at this time of year, thanking the gods for their bounty and asking for their blessings.

Historical References to Pre-Christian May Day

We might have some documentation of pre-Christian May celebrations in a sermon of St. Eligius to his Frankish congregation around the year 650 CE. Listing a large number of things that Christians weren’t supposed to do, Eligius admonished his flock,

“No one should observe Jove’s day in idleness without holy festivities, not in May or any other time.”

The phrase “not in May or any other time” suggests there was something special about “Jove’s Days” in May, or one particular “Jove’s Day” in May, that was worth being singled out for special mention. “Jove’s Day” is the Latin name for Thursday (surviving in French jeudi, Spanish jueves, and so on). If we assume that his listeners would have understood Jove to be Thunaer (Thor), we could speculate that there was a special festival in Thunaer’s honor in May.

This isn’t much to go on, but at least we can tentatively conclude that something was going on in May that involved idleness and relaxation, if Eligius felt the need to single it out.

May Day in Medieval Scandinavia

We have more documentation of May festivities in the late medieval and early modern periods. Olaus Magnus describes how welcome the mildness of May was in Scandinavia (Historia de gentibus septentrionalibus XV.8; transl. Fisher and Higgins, A Description of the Northern Peoples, 1555, vol. 2, p. 733):

Olaus Magnus’s depiction of May feasting in Sweden.

Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (1555).542

When from the beginning of October till the end of April the northern populations have one and all cheerfully undergone very rough winters, extremely long nights, harsh gales, frost, snow, darkness, storms, immeasurable cold, and all the other changes of the cruel elements, as though these were comforts bestowed upon them, then those remote peoples celebrate in various ways. In fact it is their habit, and principally the custom of those who live towards the Arctic Pole, to welcome the returning radiance of the sun with special dances. Dwellers in the higher mountainous regions redouble their revelries by feasting one another, rejoicing because more abundant hunting and more plentiful fishing are again at hand.

Almost two centuries later, Nicolay Jaeger described a Scandinavian folk festival on May Eve.

To the sound of drums, a a man carrying a white banner with a cross on it led a procession. Behind him came people riding with a “May-spear.” In every village that the procession reached, they set up the spear and danced around it. The drinking and dancing lasted all night (Troelsen, Nordisk Bondereligion, p. 64).

In Swedish university towns, students still don white caps and begin celebrating at exactly three o’clock on Valborgsafton (the Swedish translation of Walpurgisnacht), dancing all night and breakfasting on herring in the morning.

In southern Sweden, an old custom was for men with musical instruments to process from house to house att sjunga mai i by, “to sing May into town,” asking for donations of food for a feast later (Lorenzén, Of Swedish Ways, pp. 249-251). Helsinki celebrates Vapunaatto or Vappu (the Finnish borrowing of Walpurgisnacht) with outdoor festivals.

Bringing in the May

One May custom that is well documented at least to medieval times is the English custom of “bringing in the May”: bringing flowers and greenery in from the fields and forests.

The Old English poem Menologium (75-79, ed. Karasawa, The Old English Metrical Calendar, p. 76) describes the arrival of the month of May; since May is described as entering the town dressed in finery of branches and leaves, it’s possible that it may describe “bringing in the May”:543

Swylce in burh raþe

[embe siex niht þæs,]105 smicere on gearwum,

wudum and wyrtum cymeð wlitig scriðan

þrymilce on tun, þearfe bringeð

Maius micle geond menigeo gehwær.

Likewise in the town,

About six nights after [Rogation Day, April 25], elegant in dress,

In boughs and in plants, the beautiful Thrimilce106 comes

Swiftly gliding into town. May brings much

Of what is needed through crowds everywhere.

“Bringing in the May” is certainly documented in later texts. In Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” in the Canterbury Tales (1500-1512, ed. Mann, pp. 57-58), written in the late 1300s, the knight Arcita, “for to doon his observaunce of May,” goes to a grove at sunrise:

To maken him a gerland of the greves [branches],

Were it of wodebinde [honeysuckle] or hawethorn leves.

And loude he song ayein [in] the sonne shene:

“May, with alle thy floures and thy grene,

Welcome be thow, faire fresshe May,

In hope that I some grene gete may.”

People not only decorated their own homes with May greenery, they gave it as gifts. Beloved maidens might find fresh blossoms at their doors on May Day morning, while unpopular persons might find nettles or thorns. English carols sung at this time mention the practice (Bell, Ancient Poems, p. 166):

We have been rambling all the night,

And almost all the day;

And now returned back again,

We have brought you a branch of May.

A branch of May we have brought you,

And at your door it stands;

It is but a sprout, but it’s well budded out

By the work of our Lord’s hand.

While the May greenery might be brought in as a simple branch or a bouquet of picked flowers, in some areas, green branches were woven into elaborate wreaths or balls, which might be paraded through the town for the admiration of the populace.

May Day and Young Love

Lovers were known to go out to the woods to engage in more than just picking flowers. English May Eve and May Day customs have probably never better described than in Robert Herrick’s poem “Corinna’s Going A-Maying,” published in 1648 (Hesperides, p. 69):

There’s not a budding Boy, or Girle, this day,

But is got up, and gone to bring in May.

A deale of Youth, ere this, is come

Back, and with White-thorn laden home.

Some have dispatcht their Cakes and Creame,

Before that we have left to dreame:

And some have wept, and woo’d, and plighted Troth,

And chose their Priest, ere we can cast off sloth:

Many a green-gown has been given;

Many a kisse, both odde and even: 108

Many a glance too has been sent

From out the eye, Loves Firmament:

Many a jest told of the Keyes betraying

This night, and Locks pickt, yet w’are not a Maying.

Besides going outdoors to bring in the May (and fooling around), this was a day for outdoor games and dances.

Dancing, Singing, Merry Making and all that

A clergyman writing in 1303 frowned on May-time “Dances, cards, summer games, / Of many such come many shames.” Despite clerical disapproval, some of these customs were taken over by English churches; beginning around 1450, churches began holding feasts at this time, known as “church ales,” to raise funds (Hutton, Stations of the Sun, p. 245)

Walpurgisnacht and May Day

Walpurgisnacht was also associated with love and greenery in Germany. In the medieval legend of the minnesinger Tannhauser (retold by Wagner in his opera of that name), on Walpurgisnacht the poet is tempted into the “Venusberg” for revels over which its lovely lady presides.

The British customs of “bringing in the May” had close counterparts in Germany. In the Ruhr region, boys and girls went out on April 30 or May 1 to gather greenery, and went around town leaving a spring at every door and singing a song. In Switzerland, young people went from house to house with a decorated bush, singing songs that praised May and ended asking for food or money (Fossenius, Majgren, Majträd, Majstång, p. 69)

The Maypole

In much of Germany, it was the custom to harvest a tree or a large bough, decorate it with ribbons, bring it into the village, and set it upright. According to an account from a village in the Saarland in 1878, around Whitsunday, two lads on farm horses rode through town, with the first bearing the Quack, a birch tree decorated with ribbons. The procession stopped before every house and asked for food, which they ate in the evening. (Fossenius, Majgren, Majträd, Majstång, p. 69)

In Britain, maypoles might also be freshly cut down and brought in each year, a custom that Phillip Stubbs complained about in The Anatomie of Abuses (p. 93-94):

But their cheefest iewell they bring from thence is their Maie poole, which they bring home with great veneration, as thus. They have twentie, or fourtie yoke of Oxen, every Oxe having a sweete Nosegaie of flowers, tyed on the tippe of his hornes, and these Oxen drawe home this Maie poole, (this stinckyng Idoll rather) which is covered all over with Flowers, and Hearbes bounde rounde about with stringes, from the top to the bottome, and sometime painted with variable colours, with twoo or three hundred men, women, and children following it, with great devotion. And thus being reared up, with handkercheifes and flagges streaming on the toppe, they strawe the grounde aboute, binde greene boughs about it, sett up Sommer Haules, Bowers, and Arbours hard by it. And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leape and daunce aboute it, as ye Heathen people did, at the dedication of their Idolles, whereof this is a perfect patterne or rather the thing it self. I have heard it credibly reported. . . that of fourtie, three score, or a hundred maides goyng to the Woode over night, there have scarcely the third parte of them returned home againe undefiled.

In both Britain and Germany, permanent maypoles might be raised in place of freshly harvested ones. These were often painted with stripes, and might be taken down and repainted every few years (Baker, Folklore and Customs of Rural England, p. 115).

In Germany, permanent Maypoles are often decorated with symbols of all the occupations practiced in the village. The custom seems to have spread to Scandinavia in the 1500s; in 547

Sweden the custom was moved to Midsummer.

Scandinavian maypoles, whenever they are raised, have come to be made in the form of a cross. Maypoles everywhere may be festooned with greenery for the occasion. In Scandinavia today, the maypole often has a crossbar with a pair of wreaths hanging from it, although older illustrations don’t show this shape.

King and Queen of the May

It was common in early modern Britain to crown the prettiest girl in the village as “Queen of the May.” Her consort might be the May King, but he might also be called “Jack-in-the-Green,” for he wore a wicker framework that was completely covered with leaves, exposing only his face. Jack-in-the-Green has been linked with the “Green Man” carvings of human faces wreathed in leaves, found in medieval churches.

May Kings and Queens were chosen in other countries as well. Scandinavia has several traditions of holding mock marriages in spring; in Denmark, these were usually held on May Day, whereas in Sweden it was more common to hold them on Whitsunday (Pentecost) or even at Midsummer. The couple might be the majgreve and majgrevinna in Sweden or majgreve and majinde in Denmark, both meaning “May Count” and “May Countess;” the girl in Sweden might be the maibrud “May Bride,” Pingstbrud “Whitsun Bride,” blomsterbrud “Flower Bride,” or various other names (Gunnell, Origins of Drama, p. 135). One Danish custom was for young women to make wreaths to crown the year’s May Bridegroom, who would choose one of them to crown as the May Bride. She, in turn, would later choose the next year’s May Bridegroom (Troelsen, Norsk Bondereligion, p. 60).

As with many other early modern festivities, scholars used to interpret the Green Man and the Jack-in-the-Green as survivals from pagan times, embodiments of the spirits of vegetation.

Scholars today are far more skeptical about “pagan survivals.”

“Jack-in-the-Green” only seems to date to about 1800, with the earliest references associated with the May Day revels of London chimney sweeps (Judge, The Jack-in-the-Green, pp. 15-27). The association of Jack-in-the-Green, the Green Man faces carved in medieval cathedrals, and other such beings as versions of the pagan “spirit of vegetation” is almost entirely late 19th and early 20th century speculation.

The Maypole or May Tree may not be an ancient pagan phallic symbol—sometimes a pole is only a pole.

And yet, some Heathens may still find that the symbolism of the Maypole, the May Queen, and Jack-in-the-Green is meaningful in ways that have nothing to do with the history of folklore.

Whatever the origins of Jack-in-the-Green might have been, some might see choose to see him today as an embodiment of Freyr’s might in the world, blessing the people with fertility.

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