Category Archives: Seasons

The Season of Spring

The Seasons by W S Johnson (1846) from the McGill University Library

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:

Further reading:

The Seasons by W S Johnson here

May Day Wikipedia entry here

Beltane Wikipedia entry here

The Diary of Samuel Pepys here

Embracing the Seasons

The Juvenile Almanack, or, Series of Monthly Emblems published by Hodgson & Co, 10 Newgate Street, London between 1822 – 1824.  University of California Libraries, via archive.org

The varied changes of the year
Within this pretty book appear:
Winter robed in mantle white,
Spring bedecked in flowers bright,
Summer rich in waving corn,
And Autumn with its plenteous horn.

As British Summer Time officially ends this coming Sunday, it seems like a good time to consider our relationship with the seasons.  Those who find this a melancholy time of year, with its diminishing day lengths and the inevitable descent into winter, will perhaps draw some comfort from this modest book – a celebration of each month of the year.

Published almost two hundred years ago, The Juvenile Almanack, or, Series of monthly emblems encourages children to observe the sights and take delight in the experiences offered by every season.  Taking inspiration from traditional English almanacks, containing information about phases of the moon, the tides, and all important weather predictions, vital for agriculture, The Juvenile Almanack adapts this format for the young reader.

Coloured illustrations draw the reader into each monthly scene, making children central characters in the seasonal pattern.  Focusing on small everyday details, we learn about the weather, the activities of people working in the fields, and seasonal games and pastimes to look forward to.

Starting in snow covered January, boys skate on a frozen pond, while February affords opportunities to watch birds feeding on crumbs near to farm buildings.  Signs of spring are evident in March with the sun at last bringing some warmth to a tender houseplant on the cottage windowsill, and in April people begin to venture out to their gardens, looking for early flowers like snowdrops and crocus.

By June and July, the hay meadows are ready for cutting, followed by the wheat harvest in August, with workers crowding the fields, and gleaners gathering the last remains of the harvest.

As the last of the crops are cleared in September the hunting season begins, and in October fruit is gathered.  We see Hodge, a colloquial name for a farm labourer or rustic worker, with a ladder propped against the tree, picking apples.  November brings bonfire night and December a welcome break from school for the holidays.

Each evocative illustration in The Juvenile Almanck shows details of the vernacular landscape in this period; the cottages, their gardens, fences, haystacks (here, covered in canvas against the winter weather) and style of clothes worn by both adults and children.  It’s a community in close harmony with the seasonal rhythms of England.

If we are looking to re-connect with the seasons, working outside in the garden is one very effective way to do this, as we learn to find pleasure in the gradual changes each month brings.  Now we are mid-way through October, the signs of autumn are unmistakable – it’s windier, colder, the leaves are changing colour, and this great season is truly underway.

Link to The Juvenile Almanack below:

Further reading:

The Juvenile Almanack

Over one hundred English and British almanacs at archive.org

Almanacs at Archive.org