Sunday, May 1, 2016

Happy Nutty May Day

Nuts in May, you're thinking? Were they daft? Many folklorists have come up with explanations for the rhyme, from suggesting that it meant the "knots" of flowers on the hawthorn tree to the gathering of pignuts (a type of wild tuber dug out of the ground in early May in England), to referring to knots of flowers, not nuts. 

Which is true? I can't say. Perhaps it was just meant as a silly jingle--the song goes on as a choosing game, similar to Red Rover or PawPaw Bush or other childhood games:


Who will you have for nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
Who will you have for nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.
We'll have [name] for nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
We'll have [name] for nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.
Who will you have to fetch him/her away,
Fetch him/her away, fetch him/her away,
Who will you have to fetch him/her away,
On a cold and frosty morning.
We'll have [name] to fetch him/her away,
Fetch him/her away, fetch him/her away,
We'll have [name] to fetch him/her away,
On a cold and frosty morning.


It was not a cold and frosty May morning at my house this year; it was a damp and rainy one, with clouds, fog, and ground so saturated that to step off the sidewalk meant getting your feet very, very wet. I went out to wash my face anyway, doing it with rainwater once again instead of dew since there was none of the latter to be had. Ah me.

There are many traditions associated with this day around the world, some of the pleasant, some of them, well, not so much. In a post from May of 2012, I wrote about some of these traditions, along with my own memories of May. 

May 1 is one of the "cross-quarter days," coming roughly midway between an equinox and a solstice. Other cross-quarter days are Groundhog day, August 1 (called Lammas--one day I need to look into the folklore of this date too), and October 31, Halloween. Perhaps their position in the solar calendar is one reason for celebrations occurring on these dates? 

In Ireland, this is Beltaine (or Bealtaine), celebrated with bonfires and other customs dating back to very ancient times. The website Irish Archeology has more fascinating information about this date.

Here are some recent tidbits I've gathered about this day, once considered to be the first day of summer (and I think that was actually more accurate than our current date of June 21).


Taken on May 1 at the John C Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, NC when we visited there in 2014.
You can read about it here
The British Isles, of course, are well known for their May Day celebrations, with Maypoles and processions. It was also a custom to leave a little bouquet of flowers on neighbors' doorsteps for luck, and to drive cattle through a fire to prevent such evil as milk thievery (people believed that milk could be stolen from the cattle through various evil means).  More about British customs, along with a few others,  from the BBC, can be found here.

In Greece, it was a day for celebrating, singing and feasting at the expense of the gentry. This is a clip from Folklore, Volume 1, by Joseph Jacobs, : 



The adults took part too, it seems, with their own song:



In Europe, Wikipedia gives this fascinating look at Walpurgis Night: 

"Burning of witches: also known as Walpurgis Night,[4] according to the traditional Czech stories, the night on the turn of April 30 and May 1 had a magical power. Not only was evil believed to be more powerful at this time, but also those who felt brave enough to go outside could find treasures if they carried with them items such as wood fern flower, wafer or sanctified chalk. It was also believed that during the night witches were flying and gathering for the Sabbath. To protect themselves, villagers burnt bonfires on hills and set fire to brooms, which were then thrown into the air to reveal any flying witch. These celebrations are nowadays accompanied with music and traditional food and mark the opening of the tourist season."

In Finland, April 30th is also Walpurgis Night, or Vappu, a celebration that spills over into May 1. Wikipedia describes it this way:

"In Finland, Walpurgis day (Vappu) is one of the four biggest holidays along with Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Midsummer (Juhannus). Walpurgis witnesses the biggest carnival-style festival held in the streets of Finland's towns and cities. The celebration, which begins on the evening of 30 April and continues to 1 May, typically centres on copious consumption of simasparkling wine and other alcoholic beverages. Student traditions, particularly those of the engineering students, are one of the main characteristics of Vappu. Since the end of the 19th century, this traditional upper-class feast has been appropriated by university students. Many lukio (university-preparatory high school) alumni (who are thus traditionally assumed to be university bound), wear a cap. One tradition is to drink sima, a home-made low-alcohol mead, along with freshly cooked funnel cakes."

Walpurgis Night has a more sinister meaning in Germany, however, for it is the night many believed that witches met with the devil to await the arrival of summer. Creepy. bonfires were often lit, probably to keep those witches at bay!

France has a more pleasant tradition on this date. Because a king was once given a bunch of lilies on May 1, it is the custom to present loved ones with small bouquets of lilies on May 1. What better way to fill your house with sweetness than bringing in a bunch of these fragrant little flowers? I think I'll do just that, as mine are coming in to bloom right now.

This post could go on and on, as there are many celebrations worldwide to celebrate the coming of May. If you know of one that I haven't mentioned, please share it in the comments. I'd love to read it.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

2 comments:

Michelle said...

I have to agree about May 1st being the start of summer. June 21st just seems too late.

Gretel said...

It is my favourite time of year - like you, we had an inauspicious start to May, but summer seems to have arrived today (though this being Britain, who knows how long it will last!)

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