So another month has passed and we are coming to my favourite time of the year, springtime in May. When the sun comes out in May, it is so uplifting, with trees in blossom, flowers in bloom and insects and birds busy and active all around.
Although warmth and sunshine are not guaranteed, it is nevertheless a time when we start to put our winter woollies, hats and scarves away and venture outside without having to don our big coats.
This year we were due to move the early bank holiday to Friday 8th May to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe, when the fighting in World War II came to an end. The bank holiday has only been moved once before, in 1995, from Monday 1st May to Monday 8th May to mark the 50th anniversary. The planned street parties and group celebrations cannot go ahead for obvious reasons, so instead, the weekend of 15th and 16th August is being earmarked for postponed celebrations, to coincide with Victory in Japan Day. Now, on 8th May, lone bugle players and town criers are expected to highlight the occasion from safe locations around the country. This year, it will be particularly poignant as we think of those on the front line fighting a different kind of war.
I didn’t really appreciate quite what a recent addition the early May bank holiday was to our calendar, and it was only reading my dad’s column from 29th April 1976 that I was reminded that it hadn’t been introduced by then (there was no Darlington and Stockton Times produced between 19th April and 17th May 1980. So I decided to go right back to the first year Dad took over the Countryman’s Diary, which was 1976).
In that column, Dad writes, ‘Today is May Day. The present government has announced that it will soon be an official bank holiday.’ And by ‘soon’, he meant 1978.
May 1st has been a significant pagan festival for many centuries, and one belief was that if a lady bathed her face in the first dew collected on May Day, it would bestow on her an ever-youthful complexion. It was a belief that persisted across the class divide and in 1515, the Queen herself, Henry VIII’s first wife Catherine of Aragon, is reported to have gone out with 25 of her ladies in waiting to gather the May Day morning dew. Droplets were collected on silver spoons and kept in tiny glass phials. But the benefits only lasted for a year, and so the ritual had to be performed annually. Samuel Pepys reported in 1667 that his wife ‘has gone away with Jane and W.Hewer to Woolwich to lye there tomorrow and so gather May dew tomorrow morning.’
Another custom was popular among the young women of the parish who wanted to know to whom they were destined to be married. To find out, they had to find a snail in the first light of May Day morning, then place it in the cold ashes of the fireplace. They then had to wait until the snail’s trail spelled out the initials, or even the name, of their true love.
Pagan celebrations of May Day were banned in 1644 by the ‘Long Parliament’ of 1640-1660, and the maypole was cited as ‘a heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.’ Parish constables and churchwardens were tasked with pulling them down, and any that failed in their duty would be fined five shillings for each week the offending pole remained in place. The prohibition meant that the maypole became a symbol of defiance, and with the dissolution of Parliament and the dawn of the Reformation in 1660, they reappeared in abundance.
In 1889, the Paris International Workers’ Congress demanded limits to working hours, and improvements to conditions for women and children. They called for an international demonstration on May 1st 1890 to show support for an eight-hour working day, and it became known as ‘International Workers’ Day’. Over the years, the day became strongly associated with workers’ rights and has seen many protests, marches and riots in the pursuit of improved conditions for the employed.
And if anyone is wondering, the international maritime and air distress call, ‘Mayday’ has nothing to do with the day at all. In fact, it is taken from the English pronunciation of the French ‘M’aider’ which means ‘Help me’.
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This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 1st May and the Gazette & Herald on 29th April 2020