Bringing in the May came in many forms and guises, but at its heart the custom involved getting down and dirty with the world around you. Foliage and noise seem to have been a big part of the tradition. Commonly, people would leave their towns and villages on the night before May Day, head into the nearest patch of countryside to gather flowers and greenery, then return to their homes – often on May morning – making a heck of a racket (gunfire, horn tunes and cheering have all been noted) before decorating their living spaces with their findings. Oh, and according to folk historian, Steve Roud, the getting down and dirty part didn’t necessarily mean getting green fingers. “People had a great deal of fun that had little to do with greenery while out in the woods overnight,” he notes in his book, The English Year. Philip Stubbes, a Puritan writing in 1583, was far less coy, claiming that, “of forty, threescore, or a hundred maids, going to the wood overnight, there have scarcely the third part of them return home undefiled.”
One custom involved a bizarre kind of horticultural rhyming slang, intended to mutely indicate what you really thought of your lover.
Other, less carnal recollections in Steve Roud’s book include the use of birch branches to decorate the entrances of houses (“at Kington, no house was without its bough of green birch in the doorway” [Herefordshire, 1850]), and flower rituals (“it hath been a custom, time out of mind, for children to scatter flowers before people’s doors in towns on May Day” [Leicestershire, 1895]). One custom involved a bizarre kind of horticultural rhyming slang, intended to mutely indicate what you really thought of your lover: “It was formerly a custom… for young men to place birchen boughs on May-day over the doors of their mistresses, and mark the residence of a scold by an alder bough. There in an old rhyme which mentions peculiar boughs for various tempers, as an owler (alder) for a scolder, a nut for a slut, etc.”
May Day Eve: Mischief Night
Mischief Nights did not only fall on April 30th, or May Day Eve, but were common throughout the calendar year, often following on different dates according to local folklore. Other Mischief Nights include November 4th and, of course, the biggest Mischief Night of them all: Halloween.
That crossover between the mortal and the supernatural seems to be a common thread. Ella M Leather, the Herefordshire folklorist, wrote that, “On the Eve of May Day, at Kingstone and Thruxton, folk used to put trays of moss outside their doors for the fairies to dance upon.” Meanwhile, Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – a prime example of Mischief Night if there ever was one – is set on April 30th, and in Germanic countries it is known as Walpurgisnacht, when the witches are believed to ride high.
The information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).