1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/May

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

MAY, the fifth month of our modern year, the third of the old Roman calendar. The origin of the name is disputed; the derivation from Maia, the mother of Mercury, to whom the Romans were accustomed to sacrifice on the first day of this month, is usually accepted. The ancient Romans used on May Day to go in procession to the grotto of Egeria. From the 28th of April to the 2nd of May was kept the festival in honour of Flora, goddess of flowers. By the Romans the month was regarded as unlucky for marriages, owing to the celebration on the 9th, 11th and 13th of the Lemuria, the festival of the unhappy dead. This superstition has survived to the present day.

In medieval and Tudor England, May Day was a great public holiday. All classes of the people, young and old alike, were up with the dawn, and went “a-Maying” in the woods. Branches of trees and flowers were borne back in triumph to the towns and villages, the centre of the procession being occupied by those who shouldered the maypole, glorious with ribbons and wreaths. The maypole was usually of birch, and set up for the day only; but in London and the larger towns the poles were of durable wood and permanently erected. They were special eyesores to the Puritans. John Stubbes in his Anatomy of Abuses (1583) speaks of them as those “stinckyng idols,” about which the people “leape and daunce, as the heathen did.” Maypoles were forbidden by the parliament in 1644, but came once more into favour at the Restoration, the last to be erected in London being that set up in 1661. This pole, which was of cedar, 134 ft. high, was set up by twelve British sailors under the personal supervision of James II., then duke of York and lord high admiral, in the Strand on or about the site of the present church of St Mary’s-in-the-Strand. Taken down in 1717, it was conveyed to Wanstead Park in Essex, where it was fixed by Sir Isaac Newton as part of the support of a large telescope, presented to the Royal Society by a French astronomer.

For an account of the May Day survivals in rural England see P. H. Ditchfield, Old English Customs extant at Present Times (1897).