The month of May: holidays, folklore and traditions11 min read
“Oh! fragrant is the breath of May
In tranquil garden closes,
And soft yet regal is her sway
Among the springtide roses.”
—William Hamilton Hayne, American poet (1856–1929)
Celebrate the beautiful month of May!
The sun is warming, the birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming, and the garden is growing. Find out what this month has to offer, from holidays to folklore and fun facts.
May, the month of roses, is likely named for the Roman goddess Maia, also known as Bona Dea, who oversaw the growth of plants. She was the one who make the fields fertile and to whom, on May 1st, a priest of Vulcanus sacrificed a pig, to bring prosperity.
In addition to the one with the goddess Maia, another possible connection is the one with Maiores, the ancestors, in fact, on May, Lares Praestites (Those who came first) were invoked as protectors of the city of Rome.
The connection with roses and generous maternity has brought the Christian tradition to associate this month with the rosary and the Virgin Mary.
For the Frisians, it was Blommemoanne, the month of flowers, while in the Anglo-Saxon tradition Wonnemonat, the month of joy, as spring was now in the middle of its bloom, and the days were getting warm and joyful.
In Finland, instead, people started to sow, and this period is called Toukokuu, meaning sowing.
In Iceland, the six summer months began, where the sunlight defeated the night, starting the Náttleysi, or Days without Night. This period was called Harpa, in relation to a sadly forgotten deity, and on the first day of the month, Sumardagurinn fyrsti, The First Summer Day, was celebrated.
In Athens, this period was named Mounichion (Μουνιχιών) after the celebrations of Artemis Mounichia, named after the hill on which her temple was located.
We move to the east, discovering that in Japan this month was called Satsuki (皐月), the moment when the first rice was planted, while in China it was Méiyuè (梅月), when white and delicate plum flowers flourished, appreciated by Sugawara no Michizane, a literate unjustly exiled, and for this reason it brought disruption in the form of a ghost, until, in 987, Emperor Ichijo raised him to the rank of kami, or deity. In India, we are instead halfway through the Mesha (मेष) lunar month, or Aries, named after the corresponding zodiac sign.
As happened in ancient Rome, even in Nigeria’s Yoruba tradition, the ancestors were honoured during this time, called Ebíbíbí. An important celebration took place for Egungun, the ancestors’ first spirit, born from the stormy goddess Oya, the lady of the storm.
In the Jewish world, we’re going back to talking about flowers with Iyar (אִיָּר), which comes from akkadian “ayyaru”, or Flowering. Back in the days before Babylonian captivity, this month was called Ziv, or Splendor.
The Anglo-Saxon name for May was Tri-Milchi, in recognition of the fact that with the lush new grass cows could be milked three times a day. It was first called May in about 1430. Before then it was called Maius, Mayes, or Mai.
May 1 is May Day, and it mark the return of spring by bringing in branches of forsythia, lilacs, or other flowering shrubs from your region.
In Hawaii, May 1 is Lei Day. Leis are garlands or wreaths that are often made with native Hawaiian flowers and leaves. Nowadays, they are given as a symbol of greeting, farewell, affection, celebration, or honor, in the spirit of aloha. Lei Day originated in 1927, when poet Don Blanding proposed a holiday to recognize the lei’s role in Hawaiian culture.
Writer Grace Tower Warren suggested May 1 for the date because it coincided with May Day, a celebration also linked to flowers. She coined the phrase, “May Day is Lei Day.” The first Lei Day observance occurred on May 1, 1928. The following year, it was made an official holiday in the territory, as Hawaii did not become a state until 1959.
Today, Lei Day celebrations may include music, games, exhibits, and lei-making demonstrations and contests.
Similarly, in some parts of Britain, May 1st is called Garland Day.
Greenery was collected by primary school children to make garlands, and in many English villages children would parade with garlands of flowers, sometimes fastened to sticks or in the shape of a cross, or fixed to hoops. This was done in the hope of collecting money.
In Britain, as in most parts of Western Europe, May day marked the end of the harsh winter months, welcomed the beginning of Summer, and optimistically looked forward to the bright and productive months. For our ancestors, largely in rural areas, it was a major annual festival and was celebrated through out the country, especially on the first of May with music, dancing and games.
First thing in the morning on May 1st, young girls used to rush out into the garden to wash their faces in the May dew.
There is an old tale that says that May dew has magic properties and that anyone who has washed their face in it will have a beautiful complexion all through the year. This dew was supposed to be able to remove freckles and also spots and pimples.
In the calendar of the ancient Celts it is easy to understand the importance of the first day of summer. The ‘fire of Bel’, or Beltane as it was called, was celebrated with bonfires to welcome the new season. Known today as May Day, it has through the ages remained the most important day of the folklore year.
Despite being opposed through the centuries by both Church and State many May Day Celebrations survive still today. Maypole dancing, with its sinister hints of tree worship, was described by the Puritans as ‘a heathenish vanity’ and was accordingly banned. Dancing did not start again until after the restoration of Charles II.
Other ways to welcome the summer include the crowning of the May Queen, the mad antics of Jack-in-the-Green and the rampaging of the Hobby Horses.
May 5 is Cinco de Mayo (literally, “The Fifth of May”). This day celebrates the victory of the Mexican army over the French army at The Battle of Puebla in 1862.
May 8 is the day of “Furry Dance” at Helston, Cornwall. Deriving from the Celtic word feur, meaning festival, the celebrations start early in the morning, and at 7 o’clock, in fact, the first dance of the day gets underway. The main event begins at noon when gentlemen dressed in morning suits and top hats dance their way through the narrow streets accompanied by their ladies. The final dance of the day starts around 5 o’clock and is open to all-comers!
May 21 is Armed Forces Day, which honors those who serve in all branches of the United States military.
May 22 is National Maritime Day. Created in commemoration of the first transoceanic voyage via steamboat (completed by the U.S.S. Savannah in 1819), this holiday recognizes the efforts of the U.S. merchant marine during both war and peace.
May 23 is Victoria Day in Canada. This holiday celebrates the birthday of Queen Victoria, who was born on May 24, 1819. The holiday is observed on the penultimate Monday in May.
May 29 is Oak Apple Day or Arbor Tree Day.
These celebrations commemorate the escape of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. He escaped his pursuers by hiding in an oak tree whilst they searched the ground below. In 1660 Charles proclaimed Arbor Day, when the trees were to be dressed.
May 30 is Memorial Day—a poignant reminder of the tenacity of life. It’s tradition to raise the flag on this day.
May is Get Caught Reading Month and National Good Car-Keeping Month, but also National Photography Month, National Hamburger Month, National
Barbecue Month and National Bike Month.
Here are some more fun things to celebrate this May:
May 1 is School Principals’ Day, but also International Workers’ Day
May 2 is World Tuna Day and International Harry Potter Day
May 3 is National Paranormal day
May 5 is National Password Day, Star Wars Day and National no Pants day
May 6 is International No Diet Day.
May 7 is International Astronomy Day, World Laughter Day and National Lemonade Day.
May 8 is No Socks Day, but also World Donkey Day and Golf Day
May 10 is National Shrimp Day
May 11 is National Eat What You Want Day (yum!)
May 13 is World Cocktail Day but also National Apple Pie Day, National Train Day and National Windmills Day.
May 14 is Dance Like a Chicken Day (please don’t ask me why)
May 15 is International Family Day
May 16 is National Barbecue Day
May 20 is World Bee Day and World Wiskey Day
May 21 is International Tea Day
May 25 is National Wine Day
May 27 is National Fish & Chips Day
May 28 is Hamburger Day
May 29 is International Everest Day (but what the top of Mount Everest is really like?)
May 30 is World Creativity Day
May 31 is World No Tobacco Day and National Smile Day
May’s full Moon traditionally goes by the name “Flower Moon.” In 2023 it reaches peak illumination at 1:36 P.M. (EDT) on Friday, May 5. It will be below the horizon at this time, so plan to go outdoors on the nights of the 4th and the 5th!
Learn more about May’s full Moon here.
May’s birth flowers are the Lily-of-the-Valley and the Hawthorn.
The hawthorn means hope, while the lily-of-the-valley symbolizes sweetness or the return of happiness.
Lily-of-the-valley, with its small, dainty, bell-shape white flowers, is a perennial groundcover that spreads aggressively given the right conditions.
Also referred to as Our Lady’s Tears, May lily, and May bells, Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis) is not actually a lily, but rather a member of the asparagus family, Asparagaceae.
Native to Eurasia, it has become naturalized in North America, having been planted in home gardens for its simple foliage and pretty flowers.
It produces pendulous, bell-shape white flowers with a strong, sweet smell, but It can also produce pink or purple blossoms.
In ancient astrology, lily-of-the-valley was said to be protected by the son of the goddess Maia. In Greek mythology, that son was Hermes and, for the Romans, Mercury.
According to legend, lily-of-the-valley fell in love with the song of the nightingale and only bloomed with the bird returned to the woods in May.
It is also believed that Apollo created the groundcover flower for nymphs to walk on.
It has been associated with motherhood, sweetness, purity, and humility. It means a return to happiness, likely due to its time of bloom and the anticipation of summer.
In Christian lore, lily-of-the-valley came to be from Eve’s tears after she was expelled from the Garden of Eden. It has also been said that lily-of-the-valley sprouted from the tears of Mary at the site of Christ’s crucifixion.
In the 1500s, King Charles IX was gifted lily-of-the-valley for good luck on May Day, and each year following, he continued the tradition of gifting the flowers for luck.
In France, the tradition of lily-of-the-valley as a gift is popular as a symbol of good luck.
In Serbia, lily-of-the-valley is picked on St. George’s feast day, where people decorate their homes with the flowers to bring about good luck and prosperity.
Due to its sweet fragrance, lily-of-the-valley is a popular choice for wedding bouquets. In Holland, newlyweds have been known to plant lily-of-the-valley in their garden to bring about luck in their marriage.
In Helston, England, the lily-of-the-valley is worn during the Furry Dance, which is a centuries-old celebration observed on May 8 each year.
Lily-of-the-valley is the national flower of Finland.
Belonging to the genus Crataegus, hawthorn is a member of the Rosaceae (rose) family, which also includes a number of food crops such as apples, cherries, and pears. Its name is derived from the Greek words kratos, meaning “strength,” because of the great strength of the wood, and akis (“sharp”), referencing the thorns of most species. “Hawthorn” can be traced back to the Old English word hagathorn, with haga meaning “hedge.”
There are hundreds of species of hawthorns, which are small, dense trees or shrubs that can grow up to 9 meters tall.
Hawthorns have long been a symbol of hope, and other associations include its ability to mark the entrance to other worlds, with a strong connection to fairies.
Ancient Greeks were said to use its branches during wedding processions, while in Celtic lore, hawthorns were thought to heal a broken heart.
According to Serbian lore, it was once believed that stakes made from hawthorns could slay vampires.
Hawthorns are also associated with the pagan symbol of fertility.
It was once believed that bringing a hawthorn blossom inside would be followed by illness and death. During medieval times, the smell of a hawthorn blossom was associated with the Great Plague.
Many have believed that a hawthorn’s bloom marked the point of change from spring to summer.
The hawthorn is traditionally linked to May Day, as it has been customary to decorate for the celebration with flowering hawthorn branches, most notably in the form of garlands.
In 1923, the white hawthorn blossom was recognized as the state flower of Missouri.
Hawthorn has been used for medicinal purposes for years, including to treat heart and blood diseases, as well as chest pains, blood pressure issues, and high cholesterol. The majority of its medicinal value is found in its fruit pigments.
Moreover, hawthorn leaves and fruit are edible. When picked young, the leaves can be used in salads, while fruit can be eaten on its own or used to make jelly and wine.
The shrike, a bird, will impale its already dead prey onto a hawthorn’s thorn, allowing the bird to eat more comfortably.
May’s birthstone is the emerald.
The emerald is a green type of beryl. Its color ranges from light to rich green. The more saturated hues are more valuable, especially if pure- or blue-green.
Natural emeralds are flawed, with fractures or other materials mixed in, called inclusions, which may appear as needles, columns, or cubes of minerals or bubbles of gas or liquid. Sometimes oil or resin is added to fill fractures and improve its appearance.
Some of the best emeralds come from South American mines, although perhaps the oldest known came from Egypt. Not by chance, it was a favorite gem of Cleopatra!
The emerald symbolizes rebirth and fertility and was thought to grant foresight, cure various diseases, soothe nerves, improve memory, and ensure loyalty.
And what about folklore?
– A warm January, a cold May.
But also “a dry May and a leaking June”.
– A snowstorm in May is worth a wagonload of hay.
The month of may was considered an unlucky month particularly for getting married.
“Marry in May and you’ll rue the day”, they said.
Being born in May was also thought to produce a sickly child.
– Never buy a broom in May or wash blankets.
– Wash a blanket in May. Wash a dear one away.
– Cats born this month will not be good rodent catchers and even worse, will bring snakes into the home.
– A wet May makes a big load of hay. A cold May is kindly and fills the barn finely.
– A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay.