Is there anything that gladdens the heart of the city-dweller more than the glorious pink of cherry- and the wondrous white of apple blossom lining the grimy streets? Personally, I feel my spirits soar every time I wander along an avenue of blossom and turn up my face to the delicate petals raining down like confetti. Laburnum, too, delights with its brief but brilliant burst of yellow. (Okay, so it’s poisonous, but nobody was planning to eat it!) May really must be the most beautiful and optimistic month, as the light stretches and the air starts to warm up after those nippy April mornings.
The History of May Day
Maybe it’s this abundance of light, colour and new growth that inspired our pagan ancestors to celebrate the beginning of the month. They’d elect a May Queen and a Jack-in-the-Green to lead the festivities which included dancing around the maypole (every village had one), painting faces green and dressing up a local person in a caricature of a horse. The fun continued after the Christian church was established until those killjoy C16th Puritans banned maypole dancing as a heathen activity of drunken wickedness (which to be fair, it probably was).
In recent times, May 1st has become synonymous with something much less frivolous and decidedly more serious: work. Labour movements across the world have inspired action since the earliest days of industrialisation, but official commemoration of May 1st as International Workers’ Day began in Chicago when, in 1886, the American Federation of Labor implemented an 8-hour working day as a new standard of fair practice. In 1904 it was adopted around the world, and now May 1st is recognised by many as a workers’ holiday.
Closer to home, Beltane is a Gaelic festival of fire that is traditionally celebrated on May 1st to mark the beginning of, um, summer. In Edinburgh, revellers usually make their way up Calton Hill before celebrating en masse. If you want to take part in the organised event, you’ll have to set off the night before. See https://beltane.org/
You may be familiar with the old proverb “ne’er cast a cloot til the May be oot.” You’d be forgiven for believing that the May in this case refers to the month, but in fact, it specifically refers to the May tree, an old name for hawthorn, that beloved staple of hedgerows across the land that produces a gorgeous white blossom in May. Hawthorn is the only plant in UK vernacular to be named after the month in which it blooms.
We hope you enjoy this Mayday, whether you’re working, strolling through a garden of cherry blossom, dancing around a maypole or warming yourself against a roaring communal fire. Bring on the summer!
By Lesley McRobb
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