Celebrate the first day of summer

May flowers

Lá Bealtaine or May Day (May 1st) is a lovely time of year. The start of summer provides a clear break between the cold, dark evenings of winter and the promise of long, sunny days ahead. In years gone by it was a busy time. Farmers were occupied with lambing and calving; flowers and grass were growing and the leaves firmly back in place on the trees. Many used the time to take stock, show their gratitude for the abundance around them, and in their homes. May 1st was also the day on which the rent was traditionally paid, and so the lead up was often a time fraught with worry. The potatoes, sown earlier in the year would not be harvested until October, making it imperative that some plan was in place for the remainder of the summer in terms of food and supplies.

There is a rich folk tradition surrounding May Day, particularly in farming and agriculture. It was deemed bad luck, for example, to give away milk on May Day as this was akin to giving away any good fortune for the year ahead. Instead, the day before, neighbours would give milk to farming friends who needed it. This was the case for farmers with young calves where the supply of milk for butter or drinking was limited for a short time. May flowers and hawthorn blossom were gathered and left on door-steps and over out-buildings to ward off evil.

Spring lambs

The month of May, associated with the Blessed Virgin brought these flowers inside too, and small May Altars were set up (though it was deemed unlucky to bring the white thorn blossom inside). In more recent times, the same statue of the Virgin Mary (probably acquired by a family member at Knock Shrine) was set out, the same one used every year. This tradition has been handed down in some parts of the country, whereas in others people decorate a small bush or tree by tying colourful ribbons to it. Whatever your tradition, make sure you get up at dawn to wash your face in the dew and dry it in the sun.

So, as one commentator has written, Bealtaine ‘… is bursting upon us…and the sharp call of the chaffinch assumes a melody in our ears’.

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