May Day & Midsummer Traditions in Northern Europe
Bringing in the May refers generally to ushering in the growing season, but more specifically to the tradition of venturing forth before dawn on May 1st to find flowering branches of May blossom to carry home triumphantly at dawn. The "chiefest jewel" brought home by the "Mayers" was the Maypole, a freshly cut tree to be decorated with flowers.
The Maypole is an ancient symbol of fertility. Originally, the Maypole was simply a long pole with a flowered decoration on top. Dances were performed around the trunk of a newly cut tree planted in the ground and hung with floral hoops, still seen on Midsummer's Eve in Northern Europe. The colorful streamers that we associate with Maypole dancing are an addition from Victorian England. Presiding over the festivities was the May Queen, a symbol of youth and fertility.
Officially, May Day celebrated the beginning of summer, but its importance and its raucous nature relate in part to an often-overlooked aspect of the Church calendar. May Day was the first secular celebration that regularly took place after Easter, and thus was the first holiday people could count as a post-Lent chance to let loose; think of Carnival and May Day as bookends surrounding Lent. Early on, the Church viewed May Day suspiciously, and forbade clergy to participate, but later these May ales became an important source of parish revenue. Early in the Reformation, May Day celebrations were banned, but they returned during the long and tolerant reign of Queen Elizabeth.
Padstow 'Obby 'Oss
Strange luck-bringing beasts were common participants, and one of the most mysterious is the Padstow 'Obby 'Oss (hobby horse), an ancient fertility symbol that, to this day, is the focus of the May Day celebration in the small fishing port of Padstow in Cornwall, England. There, on every May Day, beginning at the stroke of midnight, the 'Oss dances through the village, enacting a ritual death and rebirth that symbolizes the renewal of spring. It is said to bring luck and fertility to the community and to any woman it touches.
Also common was a figure covered head to foot in greenery, often called the Green Man, representing the vitality of Nature. Green Men are found carved and chiseled into many medieval churches and cathedrals to invoke the powers of the natural world and to bring good luck. Robin Hood (Robin of the Wood dressed in Lincoln Green) is also associated with this archetype. And for thousands of years and in many different cultures, a composite of a man's head sprouting green leaves, an ambiguous blending of humanity and nature, has been a powerful symbol of irrepressible life, capable of renewal and rebirth.