British Traditions > May

May Day Feast, Feast Day of St Philip and St James the Lesser - May 1st

May Pole - GNU Free Documentation License  Photo: R Sheppard
The month of May probably takes its name from the Roman goddess Maia the mother of the god Mercury. On the first day of this month sacrifices were made to Maia. There is also a possible link in the origins of the name May with the Roman senators called majores to whom the month was dedicated.

Although the weather can be decidedly changeable, by the 1st of May there are usually plenty of signs that Winter is over – lambs in the field, bluebells, primroses, new leaves and blossom. It is not surprising that this day has long been associated with the celebration of Spring. Before 1752 May Day fell 11 days later and thus at the 1st of May Spring would have been that much more advanced.

One of the most widespread and ancient customs associated with May Day was that of young men and women spending the night of May 1st out in the woods together. The next morning they would bring back newly cut branches bursting into life celebrating their own and Nature's burgeoning fertility.

In May the Maypole danced around by children in England well into the 1950s was at one time a custom for people of all ages. There were public Maypoles scattered across London and on village greens. These were in many cases removed by the Puritans during Cromwell's interregnum. This was because in their repressive way they recognised the fact that Maypoles were phallic symbols obviously linked with sex, reproduction and the joyous renewal that is Spring.

In many areas Maypole dancing was accompanied by the election of a May Queen and by a man dressed as Jack in the Green. May Day was also associated with Hobby Horses, Morris Dancers and was traditionally a holiday for chimney sweeps.

Rowan Tree Day - May 3rd

On this day twigs of Rowan (Mountain Ash) were gathered and taken into the house to guard against witches, diseases (like rheumatism) and the Devil. Sometimes a small twig of Rowan was put into the butter or hung around a farm animal's neck. Horse whips were made from Rowan wood to protect the horse and rider from evil.

May 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th collectively known as the Ice Saints Day

May 11th - The Feast Day of St. Mamertius
May 12th - The Feast Day of St. Pancras
May 13th - The Feast Day of St. Gervatius
May 14th - The Feast Day of St. Boniface

It is said that there is always a frost on these days.
'Plant your beans on St. Gervatius' Day'
'He who shears his sheep before St. Gervatius' day loves the wool more than the sheep'. (i.e. It was likely to be too cold for the poor sheep without its wool).