Happy May Day

Chawleigh Primary School maypole dancing. That's me, kneeling, far right.

Happy May Day, everyone. Here's a piece I wrote for my Maid In Devon column for  Devon Life magazine back in 2016. Apologies to my friends from abroad, it's very "English" and you may not have a clue what I'm wittering on about in parts!

The Month of May

MAY is an important month in my family's calendar. I have two older sisters and one brother all with birthdays on May 2 and all born in different years. I don't know what the odds are on this occurring but they must be pretty high.

I have pictures of one of those sisters as May Queen at Chawleigh Primary School in about 1950 and others of my niece who was May Queen at Torrington in the 1970s. Then there is the one of me in all my gap-toothed, permed hair glory, posing with classmates just before dancing around the maypole at Chawleigh when I was seven or eight. The picture is in black and white (see above) but I can clearly remember that yellow nylon dress with the smocking and how much I loved it. It was one of the few items of clothing I had that wasn't a hand-me-down from my sisters or one of my many cousins.

May Day was, of course, originally a pagan festival marking the beginning of summer and hopefully a big improvement in the weather. It has its origins in the Roman festival of Flora, goddess of fruit and flowers. Maypole dancing began when people cut down young trees, planted them in the ground and danced around them to celebrate the end of winter. Nobody at the time could possibly have imagined hordes of children, all with two left feet, getting tangled up in ribbons to the exasperated sighs of a poor teacher, although our primary school performance went seamlessly thanks to the assiduous training of the patient Miss Hillman.

May 1st is also the feast day of English missionary to the Frankish Empire, Saint Walpurga (or Walburga - spellings vary). She too was a maid in Devon. She was born in the county in the 700s and had an impeccable theological pedigree. She was the niece of St Boniface and sister of two more missionaries and saints. She had aristocratic roots, her father being Richard the Pilgrim, one of the underkings of the West Saxons. He too was later made a saint. If having three siblings born on the same day is unlikely, what are the odds on one family having five saints in two generations?

I am surmising that this saintly tribe's stamping ground was Mid Devon as St Boniface was reputedly born in Crediton.  While her father and brothers were converting the Frankish heathens, Walpurga was sent to an abbey in Wimborne where she learned to write and studied Latin, rare training for a woman in her day. In fact, later in life she wrote a biography of her brother Winibald, making her one of England and Germany’s first female authors. In 748 she travelled across the Continent to help St Boniface is his missionary work.

I feel an affinity to St Walpurga and her family. I went to grammar school in Crediton, was confirmed in the town's Church of the Holy Cross which has close connections to St Boniface, and my birthday is on June 5, St Boniface Day. One of my brothers has a birthday on St Walpurga's Feast Day on February 25. Then there is the writing - and, tenuous link, I have Latin O-Level! However, I have none of her saintliness or zeal to convert heathens being a very much "live and let live" type of person.

Legend has it that it was thanks to St Boniface that we put up a Christmas tree each year. He had arrived in Hesse, now a central German state, on his missionary crusade. There he announced he would destroy their pagan gods and felled the sacred giant oak of Geismar which was dedicated to Thor. He chopped down the oak and the branches fell into the shape of a cross. As it fell it crushed all the other trees in the vicinity except for one little fir tree - the origin of the Christmas tree, or so the story goes.

Ironically, since Walpurga had done so much to stamp out pagan rituals, the eve of St Walpurga's Day on May 1st is Walpurgisnacht (Walpurga's Night) also known as Witches' Night when it was believed the sorcerers and witches of Germany gathered for a meeting on Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains to dance with the devil.  We did none of that at Chawleigh Primary School, confining our celebrations to maypole dancing watched by proud parents and followed by sandwiches, cake and lemonade in the classroom.

Incidentally, St Walpurga is the patron saint of hydrophobia (fear of water) and sailors and was the inspiration for the name of Walburga Black, the mother of Sirius Black in J K Rowling's Harry Potter books.  

You can start your May Day celebrations after you have bathed your face in the morning dew at sunrise - a tradition guaranteed to make the plainest girl beautiful. It also, it is said, makes you immune to freckles, sunburn and wrinkles, although I prefer to put my faith in factor 30 sun screen lotion.  If I am miraculously turned into a wrinkle-free beauty, you will know my dunk into the dew has worked. 

There is another tradition that if you roll naked in the dew you will be blessed with "great beauty of person". I might venture out to wash my face but as for baring all, I think it best not to scare the horses.

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  1. I'm old enough that I actually remember doing the traditional May Pole in grade school. seems like a 100 years ago...gosh! And it almost was!

  2. Wow, May Day is a thing, isn't it? I had no idea.

    1. Lots of towns and villages still celebrate May Day here in the UK. We're a pagan lot!

  3. That is pretty impressive that you have 3 siblings with the same birthday. Happy May Day!

    1. We used to tease our mum it was nine months after the local fair. She was not amused!

  4. I remember that May pole dancing thing as a 5 thru 8 year old. This was in California. We moved back to NY and no one heard of May pole dancing. By brother was born May 1, my cousin and Aunt were born May 3, I was May 2. Happy Birthday to me!

  5. Love all the pretty dresses :)
    I've heard of Maypole dances but never seen one, do they still do them these days?
    The closest thing I've seen to a Maypole is the chair ride at the Royal Show which is a very tall steel pole with long chains attached to seats with safety straps on them and the kids sit in and the whole things spins around and the chairs fly out and around quite fast.

    1. Some towns and villages still do maypole dancing here in the UK. My corner of the country is not sophisticated enough for chair rides!

  6. Fascinating! I never knew that about the Christmas tree folktale. And the comment about scaring the horses cracked me up. Be well!

    1. Hope you are well too! Yes, we have a load of strange superstitions and beliefs in my corner of the country.