The First of May is upon us, and Bartholomew, identifying with his British “roots” has decided to celebrate the traditional May Day festivities in style. While those same roots prevent Bartholomew from too-vigorous dancing around the traditional May Pole, with a little assistance from your industrious protagonist, Bartholomew was able to partake in a bit of bathing in the May Dew (or, at least, the late afternoon May Day rains) [i], and May garlanding[ii].
The origins behind May Day are in many ways untraceable: festivities celebrating the beginning of summer and the harvest have been appropriated in England by Protestants, and Catholics alike[iii], and variations on popular traditions vary from county to county. In recent years, the celebrations have been conflated with the secular financial, political, and educational seasons: the first of May is also, for example, a Bank holiday in contemporary England.[iv] May Day festivities are, however, probably descended from a conflation of earlier Welsh, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon holidays.
Besides garlanding and dancing, other May Day festivities include the crowning of a May Queen[v], the casting of “clouts” or winter coats, mock bear dancing by local males, and May Ducking where
all the boys of the village sally forth with a bucket, can, or any other vessel, and avail themselves of a license which the season confers, to ‘dip’, or well-nigh drown, without regard to person or circumstance, the passenger who has not the protection of a piece of ‘May’ conspiculously stuck in his dress, at the same time that they sing ‘the first of May is dipping day’ … There is a great deal of fun on the occasion, for many an unfortunate body who has failed to comply with an ancient custom is seen slinking home like a drowned rat. (153)
A similar traditional involves the allowance of pranks on victims known as ‘May goslings”. As with April Fool’s celebrations, this reign of mischief by local youth is to end at noon.
The association of May Day festivities with pagan celebrations, as well as the festival’s emphasis on public dances between men and women, and the inversion of social order (with boys acting as animals, girls acting as rulers, and children as lords) was the main point of critique amongst Puritans like Philip Stubbs [vi] in the early modern period.
Yet festivals like May Day are critical, as their immortalization in literature serves to demonstrate: early American short stories are highly indebted to the influence of May Day celebrations, as Emerson’s “May Day” (1867), Irving’s”Pride of the Village” (1819-20) and Hawthorne’s “The May-Pole of Merry Mount” (1837) indicate. The cycle of festivals is also the pattern which undergirds Frye’s theories of archtypes, and, most relevant for me, festive tropes such as the inversion of gender and social hierarchy, are the bases of the “festive comedy” genre in early modern English drama.[vii]
I think most individuals feel the importance of festivals outside of literature and theory, however; following a winter that extended well into March and an April where (if you are like me) most of the nicer days were spent indoors writing end-of-term papers, grading exams, and catching up on the sleep missed from the night before — following a term of searching for work, and filing taxes — wouldn’t it be a welcome relief to spend the first week of “summer” planning for, and participating in, a communal space in which the individual has the opportunity to break from the solitary space demanded by these activities and join in a festive space with the community for which we have long laboured?
[i] May Dew. “For at least 200 years, it was widely believed that bathing the face in dew early on May Day morning was excellent for the complexion, and in particular helped to whiten the skin and eradicate freckles” (158). As Bartholomew doesn’t suffer from freckles, and it would be rather unhealthy for him to have a “white complexion”, I’m not concerned that he didn’t get outside until the late afternoon.
[ii] May Garlanding. Apparently children used to travel door to door exchanging flowers they collected for money. Bartholomew, as you may recall however, rarely contributes to the local economy.
[iii] Protestants, and Catholics alike. The Magdalen College choir at Oxford, for example, annually sings the Te Deum Patrem Colimus anthem at the top of the college tower; this tradition has been traced (according to Roud) to Catholic roots (begun as a requiem mass for Henry VII); it has also been thought that the occasion was a Christian reinterpretation of pagan May Day songs. Whatever the origins, in the 1840s, Roud writes, Magdalen fellow Dr John Rouse Bloxam found that the ceremony was “more like a Baccanalian song than a sacred hymn. The choirman and choristers went up the Tower in their usual garb and kept their hats and caps on during the singing. The principle function of the choristers seemed to be to throw down rotten eggs on the people below.”(156) The ceremony was thereafter reformed along more Anglican lines.
[iv] contemporary England. Is it a coincidence that the Guardian Hays Book Festival also occurs around this time? This is the absolute perfect way of luring bookish types like Bartholomew and me out to May festivities.
[v] May Queen. Less often, a May Kingi s also crowned. The May Queen, however, is a more fitting representation of Flora, Latin goddess of spring and summer.
[vi] Philip Stubbs. In his 1583 pamphlet against the Maypole, Stubbs writes:
Against May Day […] every parish, town, and village assemble themselves together, both men, women, and children, old and young, even all indifferently […] there is a great lord present amongst them, as superintendent and lord over their pastimes and sports, namely, Satan Prince of Hell: But their chiefest jewel they bring [from the woods] is the may-pole, which they bring home with great veneration […] This May pole (this stinking idol rather) which is covered all over with flowers, and herbs […] [is] reared up with handkerchiefs and flags streaming on the top, they strew the ground round about, bind green boughs about it, set up summer halls, bowers, and arbours hard by it. And then fall they to banquet and feast, to leap and dance about it, as the heathen people did.
[vii] “festive comedy” genre. This genre may become increasingly relevant in later articles…
Roud, Steve. The English Year. London: Penguin, 2006.
1 May 2008