A new month is with us. May is the month of the flowers and in my little part of Cornwall the countryside has come alive and the air is beginning to fill with the scents of summer and bird song. Everywhere you look there is new life.
At Hands Across the Sea Samplers our sampler “garden” is growing too and we are busy working on several models which we are bringing out this year.
In Australia Suzanne is busy working on Ann our BIG girl who comes in at 519 x 570 stitches and Sandra on the prettiest of Quaker samplers from the early 1700’s that is still bursting with the fresh colours of spring.
In America Bhooma is working on a sampler that we just had to have the moment we saw it. We are only showing the tiniest of sneak peaks as we want you to experience its full impact as we did, our hearts did somersaults.
The little girl who stitched her had a wonderful imagination and eye for design and used her linen to the full – we cannot wait to publish her.
The month of May is named after Maia, Goddess of fertility who Zeus named the most beautiful of the Seven Sisters, she was also the mother of Hermes and daughter of Atlas.
The old Celtic celebration of May Day was called Beltane, and was a festival where fires were set to mark the beginning of summer. The people of ancient Rome honoured Flora, the goddess of flowers and springtime, with a festival called Florialia. The goddess was represented by a small statue wreathed in garlands. A procession of singers and dancers carried the statue past a sacred blossom-decked tree. Later, festivals of this kind spread to other lands conquered by the Romans, and of course this included Britain.
As Europe became Christianized, the pagan holidays were given new Christian interpretations while retaining many traditional pagan features. During the Middle Ages on the first day of May, English villagers awoke at daybreak to roam the countryside gathering blossoming flowers and branches. A towering maypole was set up on the village green. This pole, usually made of the trunk of a tall birch tree, was decorated with bright field flowers. The villagers then danced and sang around the maypole, accompanied by a piper. Usually the Morris dance was performed by dancers wearing bells on their colorful costumes. Often the fairest maiden of the village was chosen queen of the May. Sometimes a May king was also chosen. These two led the village dancers and ruled over the festivities. In Elizabethan times, the king and queen were called Robin Hood and Maid Marian.
May Day festivities became so much fun that in 1644 the Puritans attempted to make the celebrations illegal, banning even the making of Maypoles. They especially attempted to suppress the ‘greenwood marriages’ of young men and women who spent the entire night in the forest, staying out to greet the sunrise, and bringing back boughs of flowers and garlands to decorate the village the next morning.
Rudyard Kipling wrote about this custom:-
Oh, do not tell the Priest our plight,
Or he would call it a sin;
But we have been out in the woods all night,
A-conjuring Summer in!
Traditionally the dancing around the maypole was done by women but become a popular children’s activity. Each child holds one of the coloured ribbons and circles the maypole with a hopping, skipping step. Some of the children dance in one direction while others dance the opposite way around the pole, changing their direction at carefully chosen moments.
As they dance, the children pass each other until the ribbons are plaited together and wrapped tightly around the Maypole. When the circle is as small as it can be, the dance is reversed and the ribbons unwind until the dancers come back to their starting places.
Morris dancing is a traditional English form of folk dance which is also performed in other English-speaking countries such as the USA and Australia. The roots of Morris dancing seem to be very old, probably dating back to the Middle Ages. From around April and through the green summer months beribboned troupes of Morris Dancers will be seen in market towns and on village greens up and down the land. You are especially likely to see them performing their medieval dances to the click clack of their sticks and the sound of bells, pipes, and drums, around the month of May.
In the dance men dress up in costumes with hats and ribbons and bells around their ankles. They dance through the streets and one man often carries an inflated pigs bladder on the end of a stick. He will run up to young women in the street and hit them over the head with the pigs bladder, this is supposed to be lucky!
Across rural England the key symbol of May Day is fresh spring growth, and the general hope is for a fertile harvest. Traditionally villagers would disguise one of their number as Jack-in-the-Green by enshrouding him with a portable bower of fresh greenery. Jack and his followers danced around the town collecting money from passersby for later feasting. Today he can often be seen accompanying traditional Morris dancing groups.
Jack in the Green is believed to be a woodland spirit who guarded the greenwood's of England. He appears in many kinds of folk art, as a multi-foliate head peering through the leaves. He can still be seen portrayed in church decoration today, usually as a roof-boss, where he is a constant reminder of earlier beliefs.
A widespread superstition is held that washing your face in the May Day morning dew would beautify your skin.
By Celtic reckoning, the actual Beltane celebration began on sundown of the preceding day, April 30, because the Celts always figured their days from sundown to sundown. Sundown was also the proper time for Druids to kindle the great Bel-fires on the tops of the nearest beacon hill (such as Tara Hill, Co. Meath, in Ireland). These ‘need-fires’ had supposed healing properties, and people would jump through the flames to ensure protection.
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