Spring in Louisiana is my most favorite time of the year. Flowers and greenery just seem to burst into bloom and the landscape is a canvas of color. The weather warms, too. Around the world, especially in Europe and Great Britain, the coming is spring is recognized with May Day celebrations. The day is a holiday in many countries although the association with spring has been lost; instead May Day celebrates the struggles and gains made by workers. May Day celebrations are relatively unknown here in Louisiana. But growing up in Virginia, the holiday was a familiar one, perhaps due to English influence from colonial days. The “May Day Carol” is an ancient song. It is one of the first ones I ever played on the hammered dulcimer. I tabbed it out for mountain dulcimer for this holiday.
In medieval times, the ritual was associated with the return of spring and ensuring the fertility of crops, livestock and humans. The pagan festival was celebrated in different ways in different countries going all the way back to Ancient Greece and Rome. In England, the celebration usually included singing, gathering wildflowers and greenery to weave floral garlands, the crowning of a May king and queen. An elaborate dance was done around a maypole with ribbons tied from the top of the pole which were woven as the dancers circled the pole. The day was called “Beltane” by ancient Celts who probably incorporated the ritual from invading Roman settlers. It represents the day halfway between spring and summer that coincides with the return of fertility to the earth.
May Day Celebration in Virginia
Growing up in Virginia, I can remember several festivities related to May Day. Most were associated with the nearby college. Festivities featured a king and queen and maypole dance. As youngsters with parents who were professors, we were often called upon to be part of the royal court or maypole dance.
At home, I can remember making “May Day” baskets. The ritual was to fill a basket with flowers, candy and goodies; set the basket by a neighbor’s door, ring the door bell and then run away. In our case it represented an act of kindness; in some communities a basket was left at the door of a romantic interest. Alas, this custom has long vanished and I doubt that few people remember it.
The May Day Carol
This melodic tune was sung at May Day along with the practice of gathering flowers at dawn and leaving them on doorsteps of villagers. It is known as the “Bedfordshire May Day Carol” and a version was collected by Lucy E. Broadwood in “English Traditional Songs and Carols” published in London in 1908. It is also similar to a song collected by English folk song collector, Cecil J. Sharp, “The Moon Shines Bright.”
“The May Day Carol” It is an easy song to play on the mountain dulcimer. Although we rarely celebrate this holiday which heralds in spring, it is fun to reminisce from time to time. Here are the lyrics to several of the verses:
1. I’ve been rambling all the night,
And the best part of the day;
And now I am returning back again,
I have brought you a branch of May.
2. A branch of May, my dear, I say,
Before your door I stand,
It’s nothing but a sprout, but it’s well budded out,
By the work of our Lord’s hand.
8. And now my song is almost done,
I can no longer stay,
God bless you all both great and small,
I wish you a joyful May.
Here’s the tune:
And a PDF file of the May Day Carol to download: