Stern winter gone the nymphs and swains
To dance assemble on the plains,
With flowery poles and garlands gay
They observe the rites of May.
As we welcome in the month of May, the season of spring is now well established. As its title suggests, The Seasons, a picture book for children published in 1846, celebrates each of the four divisions of the year beginning in spring with a calendar of agricultural activities, views of home life and popular festivals. Each colourful tableau is packed with detailed drawings of people, animals, and objects that would appeal to a child and which could be discussed and explained by an adult reading the book with them.
The first illustration shows a joyful May Day celebration typical of mid-19th century rural England. In the foreground, a young couple dances to music on a village green, while in the background others join hands around a decorated maypole. The scene is bordered with flowers, fruits and nesting birds, symbols of fertility, while farming implements like the harrow, sickle and hay rake anticipate a bounteous harvest to come, later in the year.
Forms of May Day celebrations pre-date the Christian calendar and in Celtic and Gaelic cultures Beltane marked the beginning of summer, when cattle were driven from low ground to their summer pastures. Rituals connected with this event included blessing the new season with ceremonial fires which were believed to have magical properties, and the decoration of homes and livestock with flowers.
In the 17th century it was a popular custom for women to wash their faces in May dew which was believed to improve the complexion. Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 11th May 1669 records, ‘My wife again up by four o’clock to go to gather May-dew’, suggesting the supposed efficacy of the dew continued past May Day itself.
May Day wasn’t an official holiday in the 19th century, but the gathering in The Seasons has the atmosphere of a community enjoying a well-deserved break. At the base of the garland, closest to the young man drinking ale from a jug, we notice a flaming brazier. Perhaps its purpose is simply to keep the revellers warm in the chilly evening – but in the context of May Day it also feels like an echo of Beltane fire from previous centuries.
Links to The Seasons and other May Day themed information below:
The Seasons by W S Johnson here
May Day Wikipedia entry here
Beltane Wikipedia entry here
The Diary of Samuel Pepys here