Bringing in the May!

Painting. Queen Guinevere’s Maying.
“Queen Guinevere’s Maying” (1900), John Collier, painting (oil on canvas). Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford, England.

“While every creature rejoices at the rebirth of the greenery,
I love the sweet and gentle season when the world is green once more,
for I am cheerful and happy in the joy of the fresh blossoms.” -—Arnaut de Mareuil

As we enter the month of May, it’s well to heed the advice of this 12th-century troubadour—delight in the return of the tree canopy and the renewal of the natural world.  

May Day customs

There are a number of folk traditions around the custom known as “Bringing in the May.” Jennifer Cutting, from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, shares the origins of the maypole and Morris dance along with other old world practices to help teachers and students celebrate this merry month. Listen to and watch this video featuring folklore and rituals surrounding May 1st, otherwise known as May Day, which corresponds to the festival of Beltane (“bright fire”), one of the four sacred quarter days in the ancient Celtic calendar.

The festival of Beltane ushers in the summer season. Since time immemorial it has been marked by protective rituals around putting livestock out to pasture, pilgrimages to holy wells for health and well-being, and practices intended to placate the “aes sídhe” (a tribe of mythological beings corresponding to the fairy folk in the Irish tradition). More modern expressions include the lighting of bonfires on Beltane eve—to this day certain hilltops in Ireland and Scotland are lit up in a celebration of fertility.

There is a quaint tradition once practiced widely across America, in which small baskets or bouquets filled with spring flowers would be assembled and secretly deposited on the doorstep or door handle of friends (or a romantic interest) in the wee hours of May Day morning. The bell would be summarily rung and the flower-bearing brownie would run away before being discovered.

Chronicling America historical newspapers is a wonderful resource for reading primary source accounts of such customs, widely practiced, in fact, into the early 20th century. These articles can be an invaluable asset to understanding the cultural heritage of our nation. The Washington, D.C., Evening Star, April 30, 1911, reported on efforts involved in “Reviving May Day Ceremonies.” The article looked back at the Roman origins of the holiday, a celebration of the fertility goddess, Flora, and describes old English customs of the “greeting of the May.” The Meade County News (Kansas), on May 02, 1912, cited a variety of “May Day Festivities” practiced across America and in different parts of the world. The St. Louis Republic, on May 1, 1904, devoted a several page spread in their Sunday magazine to “The Raising of the Maypole,” with a description of May Day festivities performed in an effort to capture the “oldtime glory” of the festival. They reported at the turn of the century that “hundreds of thousands of children will go a-Maying” in some form or another—noting, “there is a sentiment about these May parties that will not die.”

Indeed, such old-world rituals may have diminished over the years, but they have not entirely gone extinct. According to this NPR article the May Day custom of creating and delivering May baskets has all but been forgotten, with the exception of small pockets here and there. One pocket can be found in Annapolis, Maryland, where on the morning of May 1st the doors of many business and residences across the historic district sport stunning floral displays in a competition that has been carried on since 1956. Smithsonian’s O Say Can You See? Stories from the National Museum of American History two-part blog post by Jordan Grant discusses the roots and modern-day manifestations of “May Day: America's traditional, radical, complicated holiday, Part 1 and Part 2.”   

Related curriculum resources

One traditional May Day custom still practiced in some American communities is dancing around the maypole. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The May-pole of Merry Mount” (1836, 1837) was inspired by a true episode that occurred in Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1627 and 1628. Hawthorne’s short story illustrates the difficulty this ebullient old world custom had in finding a place in early American society. The Puritan authorities first frowned upon, then banned outright, what they saw as a "bacchanalian" activity. EDSITEment Launchpad: “The May-pole of Merry Mount,” adapted from the What So Proudly We Hail curriculum provides a discussion guide with questions and video clips as a means to think about the text. Framing the discussion around themes of Freedom and Religion enhances students’ comprehension of the story. To raise additional questions and augment class discussion, click on the complete video and listen to editors Amy Kass and Leon Kass, along with Diana Schaub, converse in depth with guest host Yuval Levin on this short story.

EDSITEment’s The Autumn of the Middle Ages: Chaucer and Dante offers numerous resources related to the poetry of these masters. Though the title of the feature references “autumn,” the opening lines of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales are essentially a “reverdie,” a medieval lyric that heralds the coming of spring after the long severe winter. Songs like this go back to earliest antiquity and provide assurance in the annual return of vegetation and fertility, and of the sustaining power of the sun.

Irish poet W. B Yeats (1865–1939) harkens back to the reverdie tradition in his early lyrical poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” which emerged out of a type of Irish literature known as the “aisling.” An aisling is a type of Irish-language poem, often allegorical, that frequently recounts a visit by an otherworldly female figure who appears to a poet in a dream vision. A type of spéirbhean (“sky-woman”), she is often a metaphor for the poet’s homeland, Ireland, or for the Irish people, and can appear as a young, beautiful maiden who personifies the bounty of spring or as an old, decrepit crone. Learn more by scrolling down to Part 2. “Aisling Influences” in Traditional Irish Sources for “The Song of Wandering Aengus.”

For secondary students, EDSITEment has a number of resources related to the legends of King Arthur and his knights, a popular unit in ELA curriculum often taught this time of year. The stories of King Arthur’s Court include accounts of the practice of going a-maying. The ideals of Camelot and the Round Table are a beguiling romance, enduring from the 5th century, when the historical Arthur may have lived, to present-day adaptations in books, theatrical productions, films, and even presidential administrations.

  • Exploring Arthurian Legend (grades 9–12) surveys the stories surrounding Arthur from their beginnings in the oral tradition in Medieval Europe, through the Renaissance and Victorian England, and concludes with T. H. White’s modern retelling, The Once and Future King, the basis of the Lerner and Lowe Broadway musical, Camelot, that later became a feature film.
  • Launchpad: Exploring Arthurian Legend gives students an opportunity to independently trace the elements of myth and history in the world of the Round Table.
  • Tales of King Arthur (grades 6–8) has students read some of the more familiar stories, learn about the code of chivalry of the Round Table, ponder the symbolism of the Holy Grail, and then choose a favorite Arthurian character for a bit of role-playing.
  • Gawain and the Green Knight (grades 9–12) combines two stories familiar to contemporary audiences under the overarching story of Arthur's Round Table and his feud with his half-sister Morgan le Fay. Explore symmetry in the structure and themes of Gawain and delve into the antagonist's representation of the “duality of nature."

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