May has been a time of festivity in Britain for many hundreds of years, with customs celebrating the passing of winter, growth in the fields and abundant new life.
The beginnings of Maytime rituals can be traced back many centuries. The festival Floralia was celebrated in early May by the Romans, who believed Flora, the goddess of spring, spread flowers across the land with her warm breath. The month of May itself is thought to be named after the Greek nymph, Maia.
The Celtic fire festival of Beltane was celebrated between the end of April and beginning of May and heralded the changing of the season from spring into summer. One in a series of ancient fertility festivals, Beltane welcomed a return of life and fruitfulness to the earth after the cold and baron winter. Traditionally, animals would be moved to summer pastures at this time of year. It was believed that cattle herded between the Beltane fires would produce more milk, be protected from disease and the harmful powers of witchcraft.
The focal point of many community's celebrations is the maypole, a tradition which has been observed in Britain for at least 700 years. Banned by the Puritans in 1644, the maypole was one of the first customs to be reinstated by Charles II in 1660. The traditional image of coloured ribbons attached to the maypole, weaving a plait down the pole as children danced, was an addition to the custom made by the Victorians. Before this time, dancing in formation took place around a ribbonless pole, which was decorated with flower garlands and flags.
The origins of the Maypole area of Birmingham are disputed, but it is believed that the name refers to a tall signpost which stood at a crossway, rather than an actual maypole.
Morris dancers are a common site on highdays and holidays and particularly so on May Day, when they perform with the beast character of Hobby Horse. The traditional, ceremonial dances of the Morris at Maytime celebrate and welcome summer, whilst scaring away evil spirits.
The May Queen is traditionally a local girl chosen for the role by others in the village and this role is regarded as a special honour. Seated on a throne, the May Queen opens and presides over the May Day festivities. Some villages will also crown a May King, usually the first boy to race to the hawthorn or May tree.
'Going a Maying' took place on May Day eve, when young people went out into the woods to collect flowering branches, bringing back the may into their homes at sunrise. The May tree was believed to have special powers and bringing its blossom inside thought to be unlucky at any other time than on May Day. The hawthorn is the traditional May tree, but other British trees in blossom at this time include sycamore, rowan or mountain ash.
The custom of children's flower garlands was popular in the 1800s and evolved from the bringing in the may custom usually performed by young adults. After making their garlands, children would go from house to house, singing songs and collecting money. It was also customary for plants to be attached to doors whose names rhymed with the assumed character of the person who lived within. Holly on your door would mean you were thought to be jolly, whereas briar would indicate a liar!