Bringing in the May
Hal-an-tow, jolly rum-a-lo
We were up long before the day-oh
To welcome in the summer
To welcome in the May-oh
The summer is a-comin’ in
And winter’s gone away-oh
Take no scorn to wear the horn
It was a crest when you were born
Your father’s father wore it
And your father wore it, too
Robin Hood and Little John
Have both gone to the fair-oh
And we will to the merry green wood
To hunt the buck and hare-oh
What happened to the Span-iard
That made so great a boast oh
They shall eat the feathered goose
And we shall eat the roast oh
The Lord and Lady bless
With all their power and might oh
And send their peace upon us
And bring peace by day and night oh
This jaunty May Day song has a myriad of versions and a jumble of meanings assigned to the words and symbols contained therein. Does hal-an-tow refer to “raising the roof” or “calend” meaning the start of a new calendar month or is it a dance reference to “heel and toe?” As one Norfolk history website puts it: “…the customs are transformed into ritual spectacles, festivities, distractions, opportunities for a good time, such as the old May Games that once comprised four sections: the election and procession of the May king and queen: a sword or Morris dance of disguised men; a hobby horse dance; a Robin Hood play. The Hal-an-Tow song was sung for the procession that ushered in the summer. A variant of it still accompanies the Helston [Cornwall] Furry Dance on May 8th.”
May 1st is a new quarter day in the Celtic calendar – Beltaine (say BYEL-tin-uh) – a fire festival to celebrate “the force that drives the green fuse through the flower,” to quote Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. It’s a time of brilliance and heat. It was on Betaine that St Patrick lit a fire on the Hill of Slane near Tara in defiance of the High King as a sign of the New Faith succeeding the old religion.
Here is riddle describing a Beltaine custom that you can easily recreate provided you’re willing to rise before dawn on May 1:
I washed my face in water
That had neither rained nor run,
And I dried it on a towel
That was never woven or spun.
(Answer: wash your face in the dew and let it dry in the air – to wipe it off will diminish its power.) I understand that some, with patches of grass sufficiently private, go out in their altogether and roll in the dewy grass to take full advantage of the beautifying properties from head to toe. It only works before daybreak on May 1.
There are so very many ways to tell the story and to join with nature in the fecundity of life, growth and sexuality. Take the May Pole, for instance. Thought to be a phallic symbol from ancient fertility rites, the May Pole has continued through time with a variety of uses from an object to decorate with flowers to the ribbon bedecked centerpiece of lively dancing. In some villages, the May Pole was often seen in place of the market cross. In turbulent times, rebels were hung from the May Pole. In Dublin, it was painted fresh each spring, then soaped to make the climbing of it all the more difficult to win the prize attached to the top.
Weather signs were carefully noted on May Day to predict the coming summer’s weather. A cold east wind was a bad sign and frost indicated hard times to come. “A wet and windy May fills the barns with corn and hay.” “A wet May and dry June make the farmer whistle a tune.” “A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay.”
It’s an auspicious time as the weather is changing and the seasons are turning. Familiar characters play out the drama of “Old Man Winter” facing off with “The Green Man” to do battle over the fair maiden of springtime. Robin Hood is often featured as the handsome greening that gains strength to vanquish the Sheriff of Nottingham or treacherous King John to win the hand of Maid Marion. Like the greening earth, people still cover themselves and their livestock with showy flowers and ribbons.
Like Celts everywhere, The Celtic Ranch is joining with all nature to celebrate the burgeoning summer. Stop in the shop this week between Earth Day (April 22) and Arbor Day (April 26) where you can take home a Red Oak seedling for $2. Speak gently to the shy nymphs of oak trees, and you may befriend a dryad! Bring Mom to the shop on Saturday, May 11 where she’ll be treated like Anu, the Earth Mother Goddess herself. Try a complimentary luxuriating exfoliating scrub by Green Angel to soften the hands. Peruse our selection of Mother’s Day jewelry to soften the heart. Raise a glass to Mom back in the Whiskey Snug, but not so much as to soften the head, okay? Let’s do summer the Celtic Ranch way!
Wrangler of Cultural Affairs