May Day traditions of time immemorial

Did you remember, when you woke up this morning, that it is 1st May?

Your first words of the day should have been “Give me strength!” It is one of those ancient country superstitions associated with this date, although the origins are lost in the mists of time. Some scholars suggest it is a distortion of an old English saying: “Geese in May are straying” – a reminder to farm labourers that, as the breeding season approached, it was time to do something to ensure that the goose pens were secure.

There are lots of old traditions like this which I think it is good to keep alive. For example, I would never empty a dishwasher on 1st May. As the old saying goes, “Empty your dishwasher on May Day and you’ll rinse away a loved one before the year is out.” This is a variation of an old Norfolk superstition that on this day you should leave out a plate with congealed gravy on it so the Devil can come and lick it clean. This will make him fat and lazy for the rest of the year.

It was common in many other parts of the country to avoid doing the washing up on the eve of 1st May for fear of rinsing away a loved one. It also applies to washing oneself in the morning. “Skip a bath and you won’t tempt the plughole,” as they still say in many parts of Devon. This is certainly the day for just a perfunctory wash. It is also advisable for men to avoid shaving, if possible.

Before you leave the house, make sure that your shoes are slightly scuffed rather than highly polished. On May Day they say that people of the opposite sex can see all your faults reflected in your shiny shoes. Maids will ne’er find a husband and young men will woo in vain, as the old song has it. That is why unmarried people in the country would always smear their footwear with mud on this day.

When you do leave the house, it’s a good idea to leave something behind – an umbrella, a credit card, a key or a mobile phone. Many people in Cheshire still believe that there are charming little pixie-like creatures known as Reminders who live in cracks in people’s front paths and have the job of reminding people of things that have slipped their minds. That is why some of us like to leave something really important behind on this day to show the Reminders that they are really appreciated and to keep them happy for the rest of the year.

I once met a very old hedge clipper in Dorset who told me: “Never beat a pig or pay a bill on the first day of the fifth month. If you do, the streaky bacon will be too lean and your cheque will bounce before noon on the ninth day.” I have stuck to this advice ever since.

Other activities which, according to tradition, should be avoided on 1st May include having your cat neutered, sharpening a scythe, going to the dentist’s, clearing the reeds in a river, putting up shelving, thatching your neighbour’s garden room and emptying a Dyson vacuum cleaner.

In the village of Toot Baldon, in Oxfordshire, there has been a long tradition that 1st May was the day for giving in to temptation. This usually took the form of young maids doing a bit of indiscriminate kissing, young men swallowing large amounts of ale in one gulp and everyone else throwing vegetables at each other. Originally, there must have been some religious significance to all this, but it is not clear what it was.

Interestingly, the idea of giving in to temptation on this day also survives elsewhere in the country. Usually it applies to eating (or perhaps drinking) something you normally try to avoid. Hence the well known May Day saying: “Eat a chip and bewilder the Devil.” In Somerset they say: “On May Day, everyone in heaven eats pastry.” (This is probably the origin of the expression “pie in the sky”.) There is also the annual springtime tradition in Warwickshire of “eating a doughnut for St Muriel”. I believe these are charming traditions and it is important to do all we can to keep them alive in our increasingly materialistic age.

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