Thursday, 1 May 2014

month of three milkings*

I apologise for the lateness and the laziness, but I really have to share the seasonal blog entry below - it's exactly the same one as posted on 30th April 2013. It's one of my favourite posts, you see, I suppose because of the passage from Popular Romances of the West of England. I don't believe I can top it by writing anything new concerning the beginning of May, and I really don't wish to. It's a perfect snippet of English countryside eccentricity. Do read on...


It is an extraordinary time of the year. Tonight is Walpurgis Night. Tomorrow is the first of May. May Day. Beltane. The first day of summer. Over the next few days, we will celebrate the beginning of the bright half of the year with burning fires, flowers and revelry. The earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgisnacht celebrations of the Germanic countries. On this very eve, people will light bonfires, blow whistles and dance across the hills. Witches will meet on the Brocken mountain and hold revels with their gods. Beltane, the ancient Gaelic festival, will be celebrated with the kindling of huge bonfires too. Historically, Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer - cattle were driven out to their summer pastures and rituals were performed to protect cows, crops and people. The flames, smoke and ash of the bonfires were said to have protective powers. In England, towns and villages will celebrate springtime fertility (of the soil, livestock and people) with Morris dancing on the village green, parades and even more dancing around a decorated Maypole. People will gather flowers, wear green and rise before dawn to wash their faces with dew... This is an ancient time of rebirth, youthfulness and romance, for debauchery, laughter and light.

The following passage is from a description of May Day events in Cornwall in 1881, collected by Robert Hunt in his book Popular Romances of the West of England: The drolls, traditions, and superstitions of old Cornwall.

'The first of May is inaugurated with much uproar. As soon as the clock has told of midnight, a loud blast on tin trumpets proclaims the advent of May. This is long continued. At daybreak, with their 'tintarrems', they proceed to the country, and strip the sycamore-trees (called May-trees) of all their young branches, to make whistles. With these shrill musical instruments they return home. Young men and women devote May-day to junketing and picnics. It was a custom at Penzance, and probably at many other Cornish towns, when the author was a boy, for a number of young people to sit up until twelve o'clock, and then to march round the town with violins and fifes, and summon their friends to the Maying. When all were gathered, they went into the country, and were welcomed at the farmhouses at which they called, with some refreshment in the shape of rum and milk, junket, or something of that sort. They then gathered the 'May', which included the young branches of any tree in blossom or fresh leaf. The branches of the sycamore were especially cut for the purpose of making the 'May-music'. This was done by cutting a circle through the bark to the wood a few inches from the end of the branch. The, bark was wetted and carefully beaten until it was loosened and could be slid off from the wood. The wood was cut angularly at the end, so as to form a mouth-piece, and a slit was made in both the bark and the wood, so that when the bark was replaced a whistle was formed. Prepared with a sufficient number of May whistles, all the party returned to the town, the band playing, whistles blowing, and the young people singing some appropriate song.'

*Month of three milkings is a translation of 'Þrimilci-mōnaþ', the Old English name for the month of May.

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