May 1st marks one of the most important times of the Celtic year, Beltane. In our early ancestors’ days, this was the time to move cattle from winter holding grounds up to summer pastures in the hills. As noted in the fascinating site, Legendary Dartmoor:
The Celts knew that seasonal transitions were times of heightened supernatural strength, even danger. Beltane and Samhain were the year’s two great fire festivals — they divided the year in half and marked the time when the portals between the spiritual and human worlds were at their most vulnerable. In respecting such powers, the celebrations called for holy fires, kindled from the trees most revered by the Celts – among these were rowan, birch, apple, oak, hawthorn, holly, and alder. Such magical woods were believed to be “specialists” in protecting and purifying people and animals from disease and
infertility. Beltane’s fires welcomed the sun’s return and therefore had specially focused powers of renewal. That is why the Celts at Beltane drove their treasured herds and flocks along a narrow pathway between two banks of burning wood piles, through the holy, incense-like smoke, asking for mighty blessings upon the animals and themselves.
Beltane, or May Day, was also a celebration of human renewal after a long dark winter. While celebrating the start of summer around the fires, couples would slip out into the newly-plowed fields for their own private celebrations. Modern pagans often conduct handfasting ceremonies on this day, engaging in “trial marriages” lasting a year and a day. But our ancestors weren’t so formal. Beltane babies were considered lucky additions to a community, and no questions were asked as to parentage. Another tradition on the eve of May Day is “going a-Maying”. Sometime before dawn, people headed into the woods and hedgerows to gather greenery and flowers for decorating houses and the village maypole. This was yet another opportunity to enjoy the relaxation of “rules” which our Puritan ancestors abhorred. In 1583 Phillip Stubbes wrote the ‘Anatomie of Abuses’ and in it he gives his opinion of the May Day ceremonies:
…all the yung men and maides, old men and wives, run gadding
over night to the woods, groves, hils, and mountains, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes; and in the morning they return, bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies withall… But the chiefest jewel they bring from thence is their May-pole, which they bring home with great veneration. They have twentie or fortie yoke of oxen, every yoke having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns and these oxen drawe home this May-pole (this stinking Idol, rather) which is covered all over with floures and hearbs, bound round with strings from the top to the bottom, and sometime painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion… and then fall they to daunce about it, like as the heathen people did at the dedication of idols… I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravitie and reputation that, over fortie, three-score, or a hundred maides going to the wood over night, there
have scarcely the third part of them returned againe undefiled.
A rather rude saying, as found on Wilson’s Almanac page for May Day (and in times past, slut meant sloppy housekeeper, not what it means today):
Nut for the slut; plum for the glum
Bramble if she ramble; gorse for the whores.
Traditional English saying; one should preferably leave
hawthorn at a friend’s door for their luck, but other plants are an insult. I suggest you leave the gorse at home.
The rowan, or hawthorne, tree figures large in many Beltane customs. For a detailed article on the varied historical uses of rowan wood in protective amulets and charms, check out “A Loop of Rowan Tree: amulets against witchcraft” from the English artefacts section of the Pitt Rivers Museum. The entire site is an engrossing collection of ethnographic oddities, charms, amulets donated and studied over the years. Well worth rambling through!
May Day celebrations were transplanted with our ancestors as they crossed from britain to America, with equal disapproval from religious leaders. But not all newcomers to this country shared that narrow-minded vision. Another ancestor, Thomas Morton, removed his group of colonists from the Puritan settlement at Plymouth to form his own, with relatively easy-going and humanitarian ways. In his account of that settlement, New English Canaan, he wrote:
The inhabitants of Merrymount … did devise amongst themselves to have … Revels, and merriment after the old English custom … & therefore brewed a barrell of excellent beer, & provided a case of bottles to be spent, with other good cheer, for all comers of that day. And upon Mayday they brought the Maypole to the place appointed, with drums, guns, pistols, and other fitting instruments, for that purpose; and there erected it with the help of Savages, that came thither of purpose to see the manner of our Revels. A goodly pine tree of 80 foot long, was reared up, with a pair of buckshorns nailed on, somewhat near unto the top of it; where it stood as a fair sea mark for directions, how to find out the way to mine Host of Ma-re Mount.
Needless to say, his successful effort was not appreciated by the uptight Puritans ‘next door’, as Gov. William Bradford wrote:
They … set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking together, (like so many fairies, or furies rather,) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts of ye Roman Goddess Flora, or ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians.
Miles Standish and his troops invaded Merrymount, seized Morton without a shot
fired in defense — to avoid bloodshed, according to Morton; because the
inhabitants were too drunk to lift their weapons, according to Bradford — and
hauled him in chains before the governor to be tried for his supposed
Bradford didn’t dare execute Morton, who was well-connected in London, so he
marooned him on a desert isle till an English ship could carry him back to
England. John Endicott chopped down the proud Maypole, scattered Merrymount’s inhabitants and destroyed its houses.
The rest of this well-written account of Thomas Morton and his colony Merrymount can be found here – The Pagan Pilgrim.