May Garland

A branch of May, dressed as a garland as part of the May-time ceremonies, used to be seen as a memory of some ancient tree or agricultural cult, whether it was carried about, hung outside a house, or put at the top of the maypole. It was the symbol of the death of the spirit of vegetation in winter, and its resuscitation in spring, and was important enough for the day itself to be known as Garland Day in some parts, Sussex, for example (Sawyer. 1883). In more northern parts, spring comes later, so the same celebration does too, e.g., on St John's Eve in Sweden, where the equivalent of the maypole is called Maj Stanger (Elworthy. 1895).

It is clear, though, that the real function of the May Garland is to protect the people and their stock. Scot wrote that "the popish church ... to be delivered from witches ... hang in their entries ... haythorne, otherwise white thorne gathered on Maie daie ..." The three primary May plants in England were HAWTHORN, MARSH MARIGOLD and ROWAN, all protectors and averters of evil (Grigson. 1959). (See Bourne. 1927 for his memory of the use of "broad-buttercup", as he called Marsh Marigold, in the May Garland). Rowan was more important later in the year, when its berries were formed, and these three were certainly not the only plants used. In much of County Cork, SYCAMORE was the favourite May bough, and the tree was actually called the Summer Tree (Danaher). It was used in Cornwall, too, as well as hawthorn (Borlase). In fact, any tree in blossom or young leaf could be regarded as the "May"; the modern use of the word as describing just the hawthorn did not apply at all. In some parts of England, May was the regular word for a sprig of ELM, not hawthorn, gathered early in the morning of May Day, as in Worcestershire, where it was an elm bough that was put up (Opie & Tatem). HAZEL was included in Ireland in the garland called the "summer", brought into the house on May Day (O Suilleabhain), or GORSE in County Cork, and HORSE CHESTNUT was used in Ireland, too. There is a note in Bealoideas. Vol 15; 1945 p 283-4, describing the proceedings at Carrick on Suir, Ireland, when branches of this tree were set up on the morning of May Day, and hung over byre doors, to protect the cattle. BIRCH was used in Wales and Herefordshire. Crosses made of birch, rowan, hawthorn and COWSLIPS were put over the cottage doors, "for luck", and also to repel witches (Baker. 1980). Sycamore, and even LILAC have been called May, and Mayflower is a name given to at least eight plants, including Marsh Marigold, cowslip, primrose, stitchwort and even Lady's Smock. The refrain of a May song from south Lancashire runs "the baziers are sweet in the morning of May", so it looks as if they were once part of the garland (Britten & Holland). Baziers is bear's ears, in other words, AURICULAS.

The green boughs were not necessarily set up just at the house door (Brighton fishermen used to hoist them up to the masts of their boats, for instance (Sawyer. 1883)) though that was the usual place to find them. The garland seems to serve as a general luck-bringer, or, negatively, as an averter of evil, though in Staffordshire bringing the May in uninvited was said to be unlucky (Hackwood), or rather it was reckoned to bring bad luck to the household. Occasionally, the garland's virtues are thought to be more specific. In some parts of Ireland, for example, they say that the green bough of a tree fastened against the wall on May Day will ensure plenty of milk in the summer (Camden). All over Germany, the may-bush was brought into the house, too, rather than being fixed outside; the householder could never get the garland himself - someone else must bring it in (Grimm), so creating an obligation that, in similar circumstances in Cornwall, is met by the present of a dish of cream. The maidservant who brought in a branch of hawthorn in bloom on May morning received her dish of cream as something that was her unquestioned due (Courtney. 1890). So important was this that around St Ives, May Day was called Cream Day (Barton. 1974). FURZE was sometimes used, and around Landrake and Liskeard in east Cornwall, anyone who picked a piece of BRACKEN was given as much cream as would cover it (Courtney. 1890); an account that makes a little more sense tells that if the frond of bracken was long enough to cover the cram bowl, the youngsters were given slices of bread and cream, after they recited:

Here's a fern

To measure your shern.

Please give me some milk and cream.

(a shern is a cream-bowl (Deane & Shaw)). Children from Hatfield in Hertfordshire, dressed in white, and holding branches of hawthorn or BLACKTHORN if the season was late, used to go from door to door singing a local version of the May song which began:

A bunch of May I bring unto you

And at your door I stand.

Come pull out your purse, You'll be none the worse, And give the poor Mayers some money (JonesBaker. 1979).

Sometimes flowers replaced the greenery as the embodiment of May. Marsh marigolds were used in Ireland more than any other flower in the garland, and were strewn plentifully before doors and on the threshold (W R Wilde). They could not be taken indoors before May Day, though - that would be very unlucky, according to Shropshire belief (Burne. 1883). COWSLIPS too were sometimes featured in the May garland, and CROWN IMPERIAL seems to have been the May in Buckinghamshire, where in one area of the county, the older children each had one to carry round from door to door (BUCKINGHAMSHIRE FWI), and in Leicestershire they were attached to the top of the garland, as a finishing touch (Ruddock). Many other flowers were used around the country, GUELDER ROSE, for instance, but on no account was the CUCKOO-FLOWER (or LADY'S SMOCK) put in the May wreath, presumably because of its fairy associations (Hull) - except in Oxford, where the children nearly always included it, in spite of the fact that they knew it was a vaguely unlucky flower, especially indoors.

The garland progressed from a single bough, or bunch of greenery, to the idea of fixing the bunches on a stick, and carrying that around, as at Leckhampstead, in Buckinghamshire, where the boys carried these around, while the girls carried the two wooden hoops, or a child's small chair, decorated in some way with greenery, or, as at Combe, in Oxfordshire, where the girls carried their bunches of flowers on sticks round the village, singing their May song:

Gentlemen and ladies, We wish you a happy day, We've come to show you our garlands, Because it is May Day (Baker. 1980).

From the simple tying of a bunch of flowers on to a stick, the garland got ever more elaborate, starting with two hoops joined together and decorated, much in the style of the Christmas kissing bough. The King's Lynn garland was described in 1894 as being made of two wooden hoops, fastened together at right angles, and supported on the end of a pole, and that was how the Saxby (Leicestershire) garland was made, too (Ruddock). Flowers and green boughs were arranged over the hoops, and a strand of bird's eggs hung from the whole thing (Newall. 1971). In some places, the garland had three hoops in its make-up, so that the end product was in the shape of a ball. Sometimes, in Lincolnshire for example, the traditional shape of the garland was oval; it was made up with cowslips, wood anemones, crab blossoms, wallflowers, primroses and daisies (Gutch. 1908), and there is an isolated example, from a Lincolnshire village, of MISTLETOE being used in the garland. Simpler than these are the garlands made in Oxford, called cross garlands, a plain wooden cross that is then covered with flowers. There was an example, at Charl-ton-on-Otmoor, of a cross kept above the rood screen in the church, actually called the garland. It was taken down and dressed as such each May Day (Hole. 1975).

The introduction of a doll into the garland marked the next development. Sometimes the doll was called the "May Queen", or they were "May-babies" (Vaux). In parts of Cambridgeshire the dolls were known as May-ladies, and the custom itself as May-dolling. Children of the village of Hanby, in Lincolnshire, contented themselves with taking their dolls around in a basket, but custom usually demanded something more elaborate than that, either putting the doll in the centre of crossed hoops, or making some kind of hooped structure, a doll put inside, and then the whole thing covered with a white cloth. A rope would be stretched across the road from one tree to another, and the hoops hung on it. On May morning, the girls gathered at the spot, and asked any passer-by for money, the consideration being a sight of the doll, done by lowering the rope. Inevitably, the garland deteriorated in course of time. Brighton children, for instance, were still going round collecting in the 1930s. But their garland had by that time degenerated into a few paper flowers and some ribbons stitched to their clothes. But for the traditional custom see the description of the preparation of the garland by Flora Thompson in Lark Rise, in her area of Oxfordshire.

But it is clear that "garland" did not necessarily mean some kind of structure of plants and greenery, but often meant a "pyramidal pile of decorative valuables usually carried on the head" (Judge). Perhaps such a concept arose from the traditional Huntingdonshire garland, which was a pyramid contrived from parallel hoops supported and kept at the right distance from each other by upright poles. It could be five or six feet high, smothered in flowers, greenery and ribbons, and having a May Doll fixed on its front (Hole. 1976). But the pyramids carried on the head grew larger and larger. The Tatler for 2 May, 1710 had a letter that said: "May 1 - I was looking out of the parlour window this morning, and receiving the honours which Margery, the milkmaid to our lane, was doing me, by dancing before my door with the plate of half her customers on her head". Not surprisingly, later on, a porter would carry the heavy garland, and process, even dance, with the milkmaids (Phillips. 1952). Eventually, the word became associated with the Jack-in-the-Green, the green being the garland. But, quite early on, May Day in London had become the sweeps' festival, when they went round the streets, and always had their Jack-in-the-Green with them, a custom known in some areas as sooty-bobbing. So the garland became the Jack-in-the-Green, called also Green Jack, or Green George, who was a man carrying, or rather inside, a framework covered with a thick mass of leaves, with a hole left to see through, " a locomotive mass of foliage with his black face shining through an aperture in the leaves" (quoted in Jones-Baker. 1974).

Sometimes the May Garland took on a more personal significance, according to the plant or tree used. BIRCH, in Wales, was meaningful if you happened to be courting. It was a love emblem, or an indication that you had been accepted. The custom was to have sprigs of birch and rowan, decorated with flowers and ribbons, and to leave them where they were most likely to be found by the person intended, on May morning (Davies. 1911). Another Welsh custom, kept up until about 1870, was for the young men of the village to decorate a large bunch of rosemary with white ribbons on May morning, and to put it at the bedroom window of the girls they admired (Trevelyan). In Europe, lilies-of-the-valley are presented to ladies on May morning, as a compliment, presumably. This is a typical Parisian custom, and vast quantities are sold for the purpose. (Hole. 1976). But May garlands could be insulting, too, Usually, the distribution of these garlands represented the honest opinion of the villagers, and was intended as a warning. But of course it could serve for spite, or revenge, and then could do great harm. It all depended on the plants used. For example, in Northamptonshire, while hawthorn was left to show the greatest esteem, elder, crab, nettles, thistles, sloes, etc., marked the different degrees of disrespect in which some were held. BLACKTHORN, according to one authority (Tynan & Maitland), was reserved for a shrew. In Cheshire, the plants chosen were supposed to rhyme with the word that best described the recipient - pear, fair; plum, glum; owler (alder), growler, or scowler - in other words, bad-tempered; thorn, scorn; lime, prime, and so on. Gorse in bloom over a woman's door was the worst of insults (Hole. 1941). At Hitchin, Hertfordshire, elder and nettles were used to show contempt, and blackthorn was put over a shrew's door in some places (Tynan & Mait-land). The custom was known as May-booing in Lancashire, and there a thorn (other than hawthorn, that is, for that is universally a highly complimentary gift) showed scorn; rowan, affection (via dialectal forms - wicken, chicken, a sign of affection (Hole. 1976) ); holly, folly; briar, liar, etc. Salt sprinkled before a door suggested a great insult (A R Wright). Potato peelings carried the same message in France (Salaman).

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