Friday, May 01, 2020

Flowers for May Day

What is May Day?

May First in England, from Medieval times until the early twentieth century, was celebrated with a wide variety of customs, differing from village to village. Young people in many English towns created garlands of foliage and flowers to decorate houses and doorways. Superstitions varied from town to town about which decorative plants would bring good luck, and which would bring bad luck. School children would parade from house to house, displaying elaborate flower arrangements including a china doll, and asking for gifts or money from householders. A young girl would be chosen as the May Queen. Industrial cities in the 19th century had no flowers so people used ribbons instead.

Sometimes the May Day activities were a bit less innocent. Couples and groups of young men and women stayed out all night -- sometimes enjoying themselves in otherwise prohibited pastimes!  In some places, rowdy and disruptive traditions also developed from the merry-making customs, leaving the Puritans and later the Victorians a number of reasons to suppress May Day festivities. In the book Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, historian Ronald Hutton catalogued the many and varied May Day traditions and customs.

The most famous custom was dancing around the May Pole, described thus, in the 1580s:
"They have twenty or forty yoke of oxen, every ox having a sweet nose-gay of flowers placed on the tip of his horns, and these oxen draw home this Maypole… which is covered all over with flowers and herbs, bound about with strings, from the top to the bottom, and sometimes painted with variable colours, with two or three hundred men, women and children following it with great devotion. And thus being reared up, with handkerchiefs and flags hovering on the top, they strew the ground around about, bind green boughs about it, set up summer halls, bowers and arbours hard by it. And then they fall to dance about it." -- Quote from Philip Stubbes, 1580s. Cited by Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (p. 234).
Hutton didn't mention any special foods for the English May Day festivities, but an article in Smithsonian magazine suggested a few traditional beverages and cakes for May Day and the previous night:
"In Northern Europe, related festivals have merged with the feast day for St. Walpurga. Called Walpurgisnacht in German and Vappu in Finnish, the night before is often celebrated with bonfires, student pranks and other mischief, and the following day with picnics. Maiwein, or May Wine, is a traditional beverage flavored with the herb sweet woodruff. In Finland, a version of mead called Sima is the drink of choice. May Day fritters, called Tippaleivät, look like miniature funnel cakes and are a customary Finnish treat for the holiday." (source)
In much of Europe in the twentieth century, May Day has been a celebration of workers -- a completely different tradition. Our one May Day experience in Paris was that shops and bakeries were even more totally closed than on Christmas. And who could forget the news photos of enormous military parades in Moscow on May 1 during the Communist era? Today, I'm more interested in the flower customs.

Violets were my mother's favorite flowers, often blooming on May Day.
I remember my mother saying that in her childhood, kids would put flowers on neighbors' doorsteps, ring the doorbell, and run away. Or maybe she was just telling us something she read about in a book, and didn't experience it herself. I wonder which it was.

Spring may finally be here in Michigan now, and we have all these flowers I've been photographing. Have a happy first-of-May!

Blog post and photos copyright © mae sander for mae food dot blog spot dot com.


Debra Eliotseats said...

I appreciate all the May Day posts today because I totally forgot. We used to pick what flowers we could find, make "baskets" out of paper plates and ribbons and go hang them on select neighbors doors. :) Thanks for the memory. As always, your photos are lovely.

Angie's Recipes said...

Beautiful! I don't know the names of many flowers...Happy May!

Jeanie said...

I remember the May Day traditions of leaving something on a doorstep. In our case, they were paper baskets of woven construction paper. I think we made them in school. And older, little nosegays. Ah, sweet memories. Now I think of it more as the Russian parades. May Wine sounds familiar to me, but I don't think I've ever had it. Thanks for a fun and really informative post!

Tandy | Lavender and Lime ( said...

One year in France we had to change our travel plans because certain trains weren't running on May Day. Strangely enough, this is not a holiday in The Netherlands. Thanks for sharing the flowers with us.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Such pretty flowers! I wish the most beautiful times of year weren't the worst for allergies, but at least I can enjoy the pictures!

Stevenson Q said...

Oh how beautiful these flowers are May! The first photo was extra mesmerizing, it's like taken from a land of Fairies! May 1st is Labor Day here in our country and thank you for sharing what May Day is because I didn't know that before. But now it does kind of relate to why May is known to be linked to flowers here in my country, specifically our tradition of "Flores de Mayo" where young girls dress in pure white parades the street everyday from assigned part of the town, walking their way towards our church and with them are flowers that they offer to Mama Mary :)

Zhoen said...

The Catholic Church I grew up in always had a mass for BVM.

The local park had a simple May Pole with a ribbon dance, no idea who put that on, I was still very small.

Belinda Robinson said...

Love the top photo especially. Dandelions may not usually be popular with allotment holders, but they bring a welcome bit of colour early in the season and keep the bees happy.
We always had a fete for May Day, with a maypole, obviously :-)