Today is May Day. For many people it’s International Workers’ Day, but it’s also the ancient spring festival of Bealtaine, celebrated during my childhood as the beginning of an entire month dedicated to Mary. And even though I’m living in the southern hemisphere these days, and we’re in the second month of autumn, old habits die hard.
In primary school, we used to have May altars in the classroom and in our houses. My great friend Steph remembers her particular school tradition:
We had a procession into the convent garden and each class put a bunch of flowers at the foot of the statue. Everyone brought in flowers, which were put together to make a bunch. One person from each class was the chosen one to lay the bunch at the feet of Mary. I loved it! My friend Finny and I would go down the bog at the back of our house picking wild irises early in the morning. And we sang Bring Flowers of the Rarest, Queen of the May to our heart’s content. (Stephanie Burton 1 May 2021)
My mum was never overly enamoured with May altars so I had to have mine in my bedroom. I had a statue of the Virgin Mary and I surrounded her with tiny vases of flowers filched from my dad’s garden or from the fields around our house.
These days, I don’t have a May altar but I do put flowers on the threshold early on May Day. This morning, I was the first one up in the house, and went barefoot to the back garden at dawn where I cut some petunias and sprigs of jasmine leaf. I don’t think being barefoot is mandatory, but it was such a beautiful morning it seemed a shame not to. Then I placed the flowers carefully on the threshold for love, luck and good health for all in the house. According to legend, witches and fairies are unusually active at this time of the year (Evans 1957:272). Thankfully, they can’t cross a threshold strewn with flowers, so that’s an added safety measure put in place!
Flowers are a common custom recorded in Irish folklore for the first day of May, described by Kevin Danaher:
Perhaps the commonest custom of all, examples of which might be cited for every county in Ireland, was the picking and bringing home of fresh flowers… Usually these were gathered before dusk on May Eve by the children, although in many places the tradition lingers that they should be picked before dawn on May Day. The children usually made ‘posies’ of the flowers, small bouquets, which they hung up in the house or laid on the doorsteps or window-sills or hung over the door. (Danaher 1972:88)
Danaher, K. 1972 The Year in Ireland: Irish Calendar Customs. Cork: The Mercier Press.
Evans, E.E. 1957 Irish Folk Ways. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.