May Day

May Day
 , Bringing in the May
   Many of the earliest references to May Day are ambiguous, but those which give any detail nearly always refer to the practice of going out into the countryside to gather flowers and greenery - 'going a-maying' or 'bringing in the may'. This greenery was used to decorate houses and public buildings to welcome the season, and for the early period this was the archetypal activity of the day (but see also *May Dew and *Maypoles). Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, provides one of the first written references to May Day customs by complaining, c.1240, about priests joining in 'games which they call the bringing-in of May' (Hutton: 226). Although this early reference is an ecclesiastical grumble, medieval May celebrations were often officially sponsored and both churchwardens' and municipal account books regularly include money paid out to support the custom. Similarly, the gatherings could include all levels of society including nobility and even royalty.
   Against May, Whitsonday, or other time, all the yung men and maides, olde men and wives, run gadding overnight 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 ... (Stubbes, 1583: 149).
   Stubbes was campaigning against the May gathering, but the same custom could be used by writers on the other side as an archetypal joyous community event and a ready-made metaphor for the innocent rural idyll:
   And furth goth all the Court, both most and lest To feche the floures fressh, and braunch and blome And namely, hawthorn brought both page and grome
   With fressh garlandes, partie blewe and whyte . . .
(The Court of Love, first printed 1561, previously attributed to Chaucer)
   The bringing in of the May remained a staple of the traditional calendar throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but voices of opposition began to be raised from reforming Protestant quarters from the time of Edward VI (1547-1553) onwards, gathering pace almost year by year. The assault on May Day took many forms, religious, moral, and legal (public order), but the focus of disapproval of the Bringing-in custom was primarily the concern about what unchaperoned young people would be doing in the woods. Stubbes' reformist zeal may have lead him to overstate his case on the moral dangers of May Day:
   I have heard it credibly reported (and that viva voce) by men of great gravitie and reputation, that of for-tie, threescore, or a hundred maides going to the wood over night, there have scarecely the thirde parte of them returned home againe undefiled (Stubbes, 1583: 149).
   Robert *Herrick, supporter of rural sports and customs, was happy to admit the amorous possilities involved in 'going a-maying':
   And some have wept, and woo'd, and plighted troth And chose their priest, ere we can cast off sloth Many a green-gown has been given Many a kisse, both odde and even Many a glance too has been sent From out the eye, loves firmament ...
('Corinna's Going A-Maying', Hesperides, 1648).
   The 'green gown' was a well-known metaphor for what girls received from lying on the grass with their lovers.
   Bringing in the May was banned, along with most other traditional customs, in the Commonwealth period, but returned after the Restoration and survived, in gradually dwindling form, until the early 19th century:
   May-day is still observed at Great Gransden [Cambridgeshire], where the young men, farmers' servants, on their return from going a-Maying, leave a hawthorn branch at every house in the village, singing what they call the Night song. On the evenings of May-day and the 2nd of May, they go round to every house where they had left a branch and sing the May Song ...
(Time's Telescope for 1816 p. 130, quoted by Wright and Lones)
   Its spirit lived on in the children's May garlanding customs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
   See also *may: children's garlands and customs, *may dew, *maypoles.
   ■ Hazlitt, 1905: 397-9; Wright and Lones, 1938: ii. 200-7, Hutton, 1996: 226-43.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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