Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether summer clothe the general earth
With greeness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the nigh thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Bringing in the May

Today is Beltane, the first day of the Celtic summer and the celebration of the longer,warmer days and the fertility of the earth which is visible all around us. Beltane/May Day has been celebrated in English villages for centuries by the 'Bringing in of the May' which meant not only the month of May but also the beautiful white hawthorn or May blossom. This was gathered on May Eve and used to decorate the doors of all the houses in the village. The lovely blossoms were also made into garlands - this is the origin of the old nursery rhyme 'Here we go gathering Nuts in May'. The 'nuts' were knots of hawthorn blossom. There were boisterous games, feasts, bonfires and Maypole dancing and a great many other rather more private celebrations in the local woods which frequently resulted in an increase in the village population nine months later! All this frivolity came to a grinding halt in 1644 when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan government - never ones for allowing people to have a good time if they could prevent it - banned maypoles and all the other May Day celebrations. Some of us in England may be thinking that there wouldn't be much May blossom to gather this morning but that is because in 1754 we lost 11 days when the Gregorian calendar was introduced and September 2nd was immediately followed by September 12th. May Day would originally have fallen on what is now May 12th when the May blossom would be in full bloom.

Beltane is one of the major fire festivals of the year and the ancient Celtic people released their cattle from winter confinement on this day and drove them between two great fires to purify them and they were then taken to their summer pastures.

As at Samhain the veil between the worlds is thin but rather than the spirits of the dead it is the fairy people who conduct their revels on May Eve. If you sit beneath a hawthorn tree on this night, you may hear the sound of bells as the Queen of the Faeries rides by on her snow white horse searching for mortals to lure away. Take care to hide your face for if she sees you then it may be you that she steals away and carries back to Tir Nan Og....

This is a beautiful and very ancient Gaelic poem dating back to at least the 10th century. The poet's name is lost in the mists of time but legend has it that it was the great Gaelic warrior king Finn McCuill who wrote it.

May, clad in cloth of gold,
Cometh this way;
The fluting of the blackbirds
Heralds the day.

The dust coloured cuckoo
Cries welcome O Queen!
For winter has vanished,
The thickets are green.

Soon the trampling of cattle
where river runs low!
The long hair of the heather,
The canna like snow.

Wild waters are sleeping,
Foam of blossom is here;
Peace, save the panic
In the heart of the deer.

The wild bee is busy,
The ant honey spills,
The wandering kine
Are abroad on the hills.

The harp of the forest
Sounds low, sounds sweet;
Soft bloom on the heights;
On the loch, haze of heat.

The waterfall dreams;
Snipe, corncrakes, drum
By the pool where the talk
Of the rushes is come.

The swallow is swooping;
Song swings from each brae;
Rich harvest of mast falls;
The swamp shimmers gay.

Happy the heart of man,
Eager each maid;
Lovely the forest,
The wild plane, the green glade.

Truly winter is gone,
Come the time of delight,
The summer truce joyous,
May, blossom-white.

In the heart of the meadows
The lapwings are quiet;
A winding stream
Makes drowsy riot.

Race horses, sail, run,
Rejoice and be bold!
See, the shaft of the sun
Makes the water-flag gold.

Loud, clear, the blackcap;
The lark trills his voice
Hail May of delicate colours
tis May-Day - rejoice!


Anonymous said...

What a lovely post, Rowan. :) And a beautiful Beltane morning to accompany this wonderful day. :)


solsticedreamer~laoi gaul~williams said...

a lovely, lovely post thank you rowan~i have to admit to feeling a little deflated this morning but this has perked me right up!
...oh and expect an e-mail soon!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your beautiful post - I think we're now firmly heading for summer!

Anonymous said...

Lovely post xxxx

Derrick said...

Hello Rowan,

Beautiful words and pictures to welcome the month. I watched "Under The Greenwood Tree" on TV last night. They were dancing around the Maypole!

Lynda (Granny K) said...

Lovely post Rowan, the countryside is so beautiful at this time of year.
Have a good weekend.

Tea with Willow said...

Thanks for sharing this lovely post Rowan - truly a beautiful Beltane day here. Enjoy your celebrations!

Willow x

Thimbleanna said...

Happy May Day Rowan! Thanks for all the historical information and the beautiful poem. Do the children dance around maypoles anymore in England? I remember only one year when I was a little girl, maybe 6 or 7, we did a little maypole dance with a huge pole in the schoolyard. I was fascinated with the way the ribbons wove in and out. I think it was an anomaly and just one group of teachers that wanted to do that for the children -- I loved it. I wish they still did it here.

Btw, for some reason, your e-mail server and my e-mail server don't like each other. Whenever I try to reply to your comments, the ALWAYS bounce back. I love your comments and didn't want you to think that I'm not replying to you -- I'll just have to communicate through your blog. ;-)

Sheila said...

Lovely post and pictures. Did you wash your face in the dew this morning? It's good for the complection you know..!
The field of bluebells with the white flowers(?) is beautiful.
Have a great weekend.

Piecefulafternoon said...

Simply lovely. We sat in our little grove of trees last night and listened to the wonderful sounds of nature. The fairies seemed to be flitting all about - rustling the leaves and singing their fairy songs. It was delightful.

I love your music today too - thanks for a wonderful post and happy May Day!!!

Hollace said...

Thanks for starting May off with a beautiful intro. I enjoy how you weave literature, art, nature and history into your posts. They are beautiful.

Rowan said...

Thimbleanna - there are still some schools and villages that do maypole dancing but it is fairly unusual now I think. It was all watered down by the Victorians anyway, originally it wasn't children who danced but the young men and women of the villages.
Sheila, the white flowers growing with the bluebells are greater stitchwort, I always think they look lovely together.

Elizabeth Rhiannon said...

Your blog is now becoming a 'must-have' for my soul :) The music, the beautiful pictures and poetry; you truly are a beautiful person! Enjoy today and a blessed Beltane to you...~ER~

Leanne said...

a lovely post rowan, beltane blessings upon you, leanne x

Anonymous said...

Lovely post Rowan, I often wondered why the term "Nuts in May", it didn't make any sense as nuts are not ready in May. So that has cleared that up for me.

PAT said...

This post is gorgeous, Rowan!
The Hawthorne is the Missouri state flower. The Dogwood is our state tree.

Hope your weekend is wonderful!

Wanda said...

I truly enjoy your blog Rowan...such calming music and the beautiful poetry...have also been reading many of your past posts...
not only like fine literature but informative!

Anonymous said...

Beautifully presented. Lots of things I didn't know.
Always thought picking Hawthorn was supposed to bring bad luck.

Rowan said...

joco, you are quite right about having hawthorn in the house being bad luck, it was used only to decorate the outside and on this one occasion when there was a sort of amnesty.

Rosie said...

I always learn something new from your posts,Rowan, I didn't know that the 'nuts in May' actually meant the knots of blossom - lovely post, thankyou:)

FireLight said...

Rowan, thank you for dropping by my blog.(I am sure some of my followers thought I had dropped off the planet--work, work, work.) I try to visit museum sites so I can know who the artist is and where the painting is located. I thought the Hughes images were so perfect for the day.
Thank you for your beautifully written and informative history of May 1. I have a little text named The Celtic Book of Days. It is filled with all manner of customs and legends. Thank you for the details about Beltane. I am fairly certain that my school has long since dropped the May Day program. What was a sparse rural community is now a well populated suburb of Birmingham, Alabama.
The music, the images, and your writing go so well with my morning cup of tea! It is the next best thing to waking up in England!

FireLight said...

Rowan, is the magazine THIS ENGLAND still being published? I just realized that your posts often remind me of the articles it featured. I once had a subscription to it, but that WAS in the days before the ethernet!

uphilldowndale said...

We must wait a little longer for our May blossom. Beautiful post

Anonymous said...

Absolutely beautifully portrayed Rowan, a real treat. I hear that the village morris dancers were up at Chesterton Windmill to see the Beltane dawn in yesterday morning round here. Today near Drayton Bassett had my first sighting of a heavily laden lilac tree in full bloom, it's all just soooo gorgeous! liZZie x

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Such a lovely May Day post! I hope your day was gorgeous from beginning to end and that no fairies carried you away!!

Anonymous said...


lila said...

Wonderful! there is so much to learn and enjoy! Thanks for sharing!

Julie said...

Hi, Rowan,

I ran out of library computer time before I got a chance to comment on this post so I am back to say how much I enjoyed this information on Beltane from an English lady. Thank you for the closeup of the hawthorne flowers. I do not think we have them in ND. In the "May Painting" on my sidebar, do you think that Guenevere is surrounded by hawthorne blossoms?

Bovey Belle said...

What a beautiful post (as always) and thank you for introducing me to such a beautiful - and ancient - poem.