Poets, anarchists and druid priests inspired by May
Halfway through May, we look at how this much-loved month has been celebrated for thousands of years. As the weather warms, humans produce outpourings of art, religious fervour, and political passion.
Check the calendar. After ‘Cruel April’ we now find ourselves halfway through ‘Merry May’ – a month that stirs, intrigues and excites so many people.
As the American naturalist Edwin Way Teale wrote: ‘The world’s favourite season is the spring. All things seem possible in May.’
Named after Maia, the Roman goddess of increase and growth, it’s the moment for nature to spring free from winter’s cold hold into cascading and colourful life.
In the warm breeze – and before the deadening summer heat – wild flowers blossom and bloom in the seasonable climate, as mother birds sit on eggs soon to hatch.
No wonder the poets are so drawn to this month. Shakespeare spoke of ‘the darling buds of May’, while Scottish poet James Thomson found nothing to compare with such a flowering. ‘Among the changing months,’ he wrote, ‘May stands confest the sweetest, and in fairest colours dressed.’
May 1st is also an ancient pagan festival. May Day is a ‘cross quarter day’, falling exactly half way between the spring equinox (March 21st) and the summer solstice (June 21st) and as such was celebrated in pre-Christian Europe.
Even in modern England, May Day is still widely celebrated.
Traditional activities include bonfires and wild parties on its eve; village fêtes and community events on the day; dancing, particularly around a Maypole, and the crowning of a May Queen – traditionally, a teenage girl dressed in white and with a crown of flowers.
In Maypole dancing, long ribbons are attached to the top of the pole, with each dancer taking hold of one. As the dance progresses, intricate patterns are formed and reformed by the ribbons, which finally wrap the pole entirely. Morris Dancing is another customary May Day activity.
May Day is also International Workers’ Day, which commemorates the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago on May 4th 1886, when police fired on and killed workers demonstrating in support of an eight hour day. In countries across the world anarchists and left-wing groups mark the occasion with street protests that have sometimes turned into riots.
For the poet John Milton, May was a time for laughter, youth and longing: ‘Hail, bounteous May that doth inspire mirth and youth, and warm desire.’
For others May has been a time of violence and upheaval – when youthful activists revolt against the chill hand of
authority, as famously happened in France during the great strikes of May 1968.
But in both cases, the essence of the month remains the same: a spirit of new life, shaking up the dull, sleepy world.
- Are there ‘good’ months and ‘bad’ months?
- What is it that makes May so special? And is May really special at all?
- Cruel April? Merry May? Flaming June? Golden October? Come up with your own names for the twelve months of the year.
- Research the subject (SeeBecome an Expert) and then write a piece called: ‘The rights and wrongs of the Haymarket Massacre’.
Some People Say...
“I prefer the winter frost.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- A lot happens on May Day.
- It does. In Central and Northern Europe, it’s known as Walpurgis Night. It used to be part of the pagan cycle of spring celebrations which began with the birth of spring animals in April and culminated with the flowering of the trees in May.
- New birth?
- Yes, though In Germany, Estonia and the Czech Republic, Walpurgis Night is also associated with witches.
- And who or what are Morris dancers?
- A Morris dance is a form of English folk dance often accompanied by the accordion. It’s based on rhythmic stepping and choreographed moves by a group of dancers, who tend to wear white smocks and use sticks, swords, handkerchiefs and bells to bring the dance to life.
- So is May spring or summer?
- Both. Which may be its genius.