May Day

Thanks to fond childhood memories (which I wrote about in last year’s May Day post) and my own rather whimsical penchant for the past, the first of May is one of my favorite days of the year. This year it is even better than usual because it marks the end of classes (yes, professors look forward to this just as much as students, perhaps more). There is lots of age-old advice about May Day, which, combined with artistic representations of bringing in the May–feasting, dancing, and processions (all while wearing garlands)– leads me to believe that it was once a much more important holiday than the non-event it is today. This is just a small list of things that you are supposed to do or not do in May, culled from a variety of sources, most from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries:  take off your “flannels”, organize a parade (especially if you are a milkmaid or a chimney sweep), cut down trees and greenery and deck the halls, dance, pick a May Queen, move house (???), but do not get married (unfortunately my anniversary is in May) or sleep with a blooming Hawthorn branch in your bedroom.

For my own May Day observance, I’ve collected a few flowery images from the past–where May Day is depicted with a strong undertone of liberation on at least this first day of the merry month of May–and my own present-day Salem. I think everyone feels a bit more liberated in the springtime, and students and professors at semester’s end.

May Day 1820

Thomas Lord Busby, Costumes of the Lower Orders of London, 1820 (New York Public Library Digital Gallery).

Here is a rather fanciful depiction of  milkmaids and chimney sweeps in their May Day costumes, with the traditional Jack in the Green in the center, covered by a more masculine version of the traditional garland. Quite elaborate costume for the “lower orders”! This is one of 24 hand-colored etched plates “engraved from nature’ by Thomas Lord Busby in 1820: a rather voyeuristic, and expensive, collection that is brand new to me. Both milkmaids and chimney sweeps (but no Jack in the Green) are the central subjects of Francis Hayman’s earlier (and even more romanticized) painting, The Milkmaids Garland, or Humours of May Day (1741-42), below.

May Day Garland

Victoria & Albert Museum, London

More than a century later, Walter Crane’s images of May Day are both romantic and relevant: as devoted to the cause of the “lower orders” as he was to his art, he created the iconic Garland for May Day, 1895 which grounded politics in the same traditional imagery that is evident in his later illustration for Charles Lamb’s A Masque of Days (London: Cassell & Company, 1901).

May Day Garland 1895

May Day Masque of Days Walter Crane

Rather than a full-floral display, there are pops of color around town this morning:  it’s still early Spring in Salem. In my own garden, my perfect pulmonaria (lungwort) was in full flourish, and the boring forsythia a little past. Elsewhere in Salem, there was a lot to see on this May Day morning on my brief run around before (the last day of) classes.  I particularly like the last little striped flowers in the herb garden behind the Richard Derby House at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site–some type of tulip?

May Day 2 010

May Day 008

May Day 026

 May Day 029


8 responses to “May Day

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