May Day is known as la Fête du Travail (Workers’ Day) in France and celebrated with a public holiday. It has become an occasion to be seen to campaign for workers’ rights and social justice but the date also carries a much older tradition here; it is also la Fête du Muguet, when sprigs of muguet or Lily of the Valley are presented to loved ones.
With roots in the ancient practice of heralding new-growth after the end of winter, the custom is said to originate from May 1560 when King Charles IX was given a bouquet of Lily of the Valley as a token of good luck. Not known for his sensitive side, the young King was so charmed by this gesture that, on the following first of May, he presented a sprig of this flower to all the ladies at his court. The tradition is still observed today and you will often see these beautiful blooms sold in sprigs and bouquets, bought by people who give them to friends and family as a token of appreciation.
However, in Brittany, the custom of using green foliage to express hope and gratitude at this time of year extends back to antiquity. For the ancient Celts, the year began on 1 November with the festival of Samhain, which inaugurated the start of winter, while six months later, on 1 May, the feast of Beltane marked the start of summer. Two intermediate festivals, Imbolg on 1 February and Lugnasa on 1 August, divided the year into four equal seasons, the middle of which roughly corresponded to the Midsummer and Midwinter solstices. We need not get obsessed with exact dates, particularly given the changes wrought by the adoption of the Gregorian calendar which mean we are now two weeks adrift of the dates recorded at the end of Caesar’s reign.
When establishing its liturgical calendar, the infant Church took pains to absorb and divert the popular feelings associated with the old pagan festivals by supplanting these with Christian ones. Thus, ancient celebrations such as the summer solstice were dispossessed by the new religion to become St. John’s Day; Samhain became All Saints’ Day and Christmas Day appropriated the winter solstice. The Celtic festival of Beltane, midway between the spring equinox and summer solstice, was most effectively subsumed by the moveable feasts of Easter, Ascension and Pentecost, which shared the same themes of rebirth and new life. These themes were also the focus of another popular festival held at this time of year; the Roman festival of Floralia, devoted to Flora, the goddess of flowers and fertility, which was celebrated between 28 April and 3 May.
The month of May has therefore long represented one of the pivotal stages in the life of agrarian society in Europe; it heralded the arrival of summer, the renewal of nature and the beginning of the heavy agricultural work upon which the people completely depended. The abundance of the harvest and thus one’s hopes for survival through the cold winter months were uncertain; hope and fear merged and superstitions born.
Nature’s re-awakening reminded the farmer of the fragility of the boundary between success and failure; over time, rituals developed that both symbolised nature’s renewal and the farmer’s need for protection. In Lower Brittany, a traditional ritual known as Barrin ar Mae (May Branch) was performed on the eve of May Day. A branch of budding Beech but sometimes Birch or even Hawthorn was hung or laid in front of the house and other key structures such as the stable, hen-house and bread oven, in order to bring on good luck and to protect against evil. Similarly, the gateways to fields were often honoured with a May Branch in order to ensure a good harvest and to protect against crop diseases.
The May Branches were customarily picked only by boys; a privilege that seems to have continued until the 1960s. Although not as popularly practiced as in the past, the ceremony still survives in some areas to this day; branches being placed in the evening against the homes of the elderly and those of friends, who will not discover this sign of affection until the morning of May Day.
Unfortunately, a related practice, known as Bodig Mae (Girls’ May) disappeared in the years after the Second World War. This ceremony was only performed by young men, who, on the eve of May Day, visited the homes of young women with a Beech branch, popularly known as ‘The May’, which was left against the door or a window as a declaration of romantic interest. Different traditions were noted in different localities; in some areas, it was a solo enterprise and done anonymously, in others, groups of four or five lads would visit several different households and sing songs while one of the party left their dedication.
One custom common to all localities saw the offering placed in the most prominent position available; some were leant against doors so that they would fall inside the house when the door was opened, others were tied against buildings facing the house so that it was the first thing seen on the following morning. The size of the branch offered was said to indicate the depth of the man’s ardour. We can therefore imagine where this notion could have led to or the arguments that might have arisen in the house which contained two unmarried sisters and two branches upon the threshold.
While this might sound endearing, we should not lose sight of the human element and the bitterness occasionally found in a spurned lover’s heart. Sometimes, the budding Beech was substituted with less welcome bouquets of thorns, Stinging Nettles or Brambles. Some offerings were laden with mean-spirited symbolism: Cauliflowers for the jealous woman; Cabbages for the greedy; Laurel for the lazy; Apple tree branches for the drunk; the Fir for the wicked and Broom for the promiscuous. Given the human capacity for cruelty, especially under the cloak of anonymity, we can but wonder what other objects might have been left for the young lady whose only injury might have been to refuse a dance at a church Pardon.
At times, spinsters and widows who had re-married with unseemly haste, were targeted in a form of communal condemnation. Those ladies who found themselves ill-served, naturally tried to make neighbours believe that there had been a substitution and it was not unknown for people to stay-up late to be sure that no prankster replaced a Beech with a Bramble. Eligible women who, for whatever reason, had not received a May branch were the object of as much gossip and speculation as those who had woken-up to a bundle of Nettles. Given the anxiety that the eve of May Day might have brought to some households, perhaps it is not too surprising that the custom eventually died away.
There were a few traditional rituals performed on Palm Sunday that seem to have had no theological basis, such as making offerings of blessed Boxwood to productive animals and placing similarly blessed sprigs of this evergreen upon the graves of loved ones and on the strips of uncultivated land in order to invoke good fortune. In many parts of Brittany, blessed branches were also planted in the sown land in order to prevent sorcerers from casting a spell on the future harvest. Evergreen shrubs, particularly Boxwood and Laurel, were believed to be one of the preferred locations for the souls of the dead performing their penance. To plant a branch of it in a field was therefore to involve the spirits of one’s ancestors and their beneficial influence, in the fertility of the land and one’s future well-being. It is not too hard to see in these practices, vestiges of archaic traditions likely transposed to the festival of Palm Sunday which often preceded May Day by just a little.
The notion of renewal and new growth gave rise to several superstitious rituals to celebrate and encourage fertility and drive away opposing forces. On the eve of May Day, it was customary to place a little salt in the four corners of the pastures in order to protect the cattle from evil spells over the year ahead. Similarly, to preserve the health of cows, their udders were rubbed with the morning dew of May Day. Cattle here were traditionally taken out of the stable earlier than usual on this day, to allow them to graze the dew. Great virtues were once attributed to the May Day dew; young girls rubbed their faces with it in expectation of securing a fresh complexion and protection against skin diseases.
Likely established to dislocate the pagan Mayday processions from the first day of May, the three days of prayer preceding the moveable Feast of the Ascension, known as Rogation days, were established in Gaul in the 5th century. These ceremonies focused on imploring for God’s protection against calamities and for His blessing on the crops and the year’s harvest. It was customary for the local priest to lead his congregation through the fields of the parish, blessing fields and sown crops in hopes of a bountiful yield. The Rogations processions here usually started early morning and each day followed the direction of the cardinal points, starting from the church and ending at some wayside calvary or saint’s fountain.
It was strongly advised to avoid baking bread and doing the laundry during the Rogations, lest someone in the household die before the harvest. However, it was said that the butter made during Rogations never corrupted and a jar of it was kept all year, for it was considered a most effective balm for healing all wounds. Similarly, the butter made during the month of May was held to possess marvellous qualities for animals and was applied throughout the year as a liniment in the treatment of injured hooves.
May Day was the day when cows were believed most susceptible to the power of the sorcerer; evil spells thrown against them could dry-up their milk or prevent their butter from taking. In order to protect against such misfortune, an elaborate ritual was performed; on the eve of May Day, the cattle were taken from the byre which was then scrubbed thoroughly. The branches of a number of plants collected that morning, namely Bay, Bramble, Elderberry and Laurel, were then burned with scraps of old leather in pots placed in all the corners of the building. Although some accounts say that the fire was only lit in front of the stable door. Branches of Elderberry were then hung from the walls inside the stable and a Bramble, with a root at both ends, fastened in the form of an arc above the door. This ritual complete, the cows were then returned to the stable, being led backwards through the doorway.
The belief that one’s cows’ best milk was, on May Day, particularly vulnerable to thieves able to draw the cream of others to their own herd was once quite widespread here. It was said that one’s rival only needed to attach a string to the filter of their milk churn and drag it in the direction from which they wanted the cream to come before sunrise on May Day, in order to divert the yield. In central Brittany, it was said that milkmaids ran naked before the dawn of May Day, filling their churns with dew collected in their neighbour’s fields in order to steal the cream of their cows. Similar nude expeditions were also reputed to have been carried out by milkmaids in eastern Brittany where it was believed they stole milk by walking naked around the stables of their neighbours at night. Perhaps aligned to beliefs surrounding the vulnerability of milk on this day, it was also said that giving away milk on May Day was to invite misfortune upon the household.
An indication of the ancient traditions that held this month was a period full of mystic potential seemed to have survived into recent times with the popular belief that May Day rain was harmful to the bounty of fruit trees. However, it was not only the fertility of trees that were influenced by this month. In order to be married within the year, in the village of Maen-Roch, the large quartz-rich boulder known as Le Rocher Cutesson was climbed on the morning of May Day by unmarried people, of both sexes, each carrying a bowl full of water. Holding their bowl, the young folk allowed themselves to slide down the rock face; those who managed to reach the ground with their bowl intact were said to wed within a year.
Similarly, in the south coast town of Locmariaquer, on the eve of May Day, unmarried girls would lift their skirts to slide, bare bottomed, down the broken blocks of the Great Menhir. A scratch deep enough to bleed was said to augur a marriage within the year. The menhir was recorded as still standing in the early-18th century thus this custom, which could not have been observed when the stone stood vertical, twelve meters high, must have been relatively recent and was still performed in the late-19th century. Most likely, the unmarried women of the area followed, on the broken pieces, an ancient custom that was formerly held on another stone in the locality.
Those planning on getting married were once advised to avoid arranging a wedding during the month of May; it was said that to marry in that month was to wed poverty and to invite quarrels into the household. The recommendation to avoid May weddings was once quite widespread but an examination of the old marriage records here shows that little attention seems to have been paid to this superstition as the number of May marriages is consistent with the twelve month average.
The fountain of Saint Efflam in Plestin-les-Grèves was the site of a once popular ritual that was said to provide a definitive answer to any doubts a couple might have about the faithfulness of their partner. On the first Monday in May, it was necessary to visit the fountain without being seen and without having eaten anything that day. Three small pieces of bread, representing the couple and any suspected third-party, were cast upon the water of the fountain; if the latter piece moved away from the other two, it was because any suspicions were well-founded.
If a person was worried about how much longer they had left to live, they had only to look into the water of the Fountain of Death at Plouigneau at midnight on May Day. If an image of a skull was reflected in the magic mirror of black water instead of a face, they could be certain that death was near. The same ritual was also popularly performed at the Fountain of Death (Feunteun an Ankou in Breton) some five miles away in Plouégat-Guérand.
May Day was also the day that it was held necessary to visit these oracular fountains with an infant under one year of age. The fountain was questioned by immersing the child’s feet in its waters; if the child removed their feet it was seen as a sign that they would suffer an early death. In other fountains, a child’s smock was placed in the water; if it sank, it was said the unfortunate child would die within the year.
In addition to the May Day superstitions surrounding fertility and renewal, the specialness of the month also manifested itself in magical and medicinal practices. For instance, only a witch born in May was said to possess the power to stop an expectant mother passing on an unmet craving to her baby in the form of a birthmark or noevi materni. To do so, the witch applied a paste made from Heath Bedstraw onto the relevant part of the mother’s body while reciting a charm of expulsion.
A popular medicine of the 17th and 18th centuries, whose use is even attested at the French court, was Eau de Millefleurs or Water of a Thousand Flowers. The most popular varieties of this tonic were made from unadulterated cow’s urine or by the distillation of cow’s dung. According to Nicolas Lémery’s Universal Pharmacopoeia (1697) the tonic was produced by distilling fresh cow dung: “In May, when the grass gains strength, fresh cow dung will be collected and having half-filled a stoneware pot, we will place it in a bain marie and by a strong fire we will distil a clear water called Eau de Millefleurs.”
The physician François Malouin, in his Medicinal Chemistry (1750), offered a detailed description of the other type of Millefleurs:“… cow urine; that of a heifer or of a young healthy brown cow fed in a good pasture. In the month of May, in the morning, we collect in a vessel this urine of the cow which is carried, hot, to the patient, who must be on an empty stomach.” Lémery believed this tonic a purgative most suitable for treating asthma, dropsy, rheumatism and sciatica, if the patient drank two or three glasses of it every morning for nine days.
It was also believed that warts could be made to disappear if rubbed with the tail of a black cat but only if done under the new moon in May. Additionally, a cat born in May was said to be no good at catching mice; it would only bring snakes into the house. In eastern Brittany, some believed that for a cat to be any good as a mouse-catcher, it needed to have been stolen.
Of note in my particular corner of Brittany, May Day is also the feast day of Saint Brieuc, a late-5th century evangelist and one of the Seven Founding Saints of Brittany. He established a monastery around which a substantial community developed and this town, that now bears his name, is the capital of my Département. Saint Brieuc is said to have once travelled with a group of monks that were suddenly surrounded by a pack of wolves. His companions fled but Brieuc confronted the beasts with prayer and the sign of the cross; placated, the animals knelt before him in humility. Due to his legendary acts of charity, he is regarded as the patron saint of purse-makers.
I shall end this post with a useless bit of trivia! The day of the week on which the month of May opens, always corresponds to the day on which the calendar places the feast of Saint Germanus of Auxerre (31 July), the 6th century bishop who preached against the Pelagian heresy in Great Britain where he is reputed to have personally led the natives to victory in battles against incursions by the Picts and Saxons, and Christmas Day.