On a standard year in the UK, May has not one but two Bank Holidays*. Eagerly awaited by office workers and anticipated with mild dread by employees of the hospitality industry, the first and the last Monday in May are bonus holidays, the original reasons for which most of us have forgotten (or never knew in the first place). Keep reading if you would like to pepper your imminent bank holiday conversations with some fascinating facts about why we traditionally celebrate at the beginning and end of this glorious month.
*In 2022, the second May bank holiday has been moved to Thursday 2nd June to facilitate the creation of a bumper four-day weekend to celebrate Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.
Since pre-Christian times, pagans observed May 1st as the first day of spring. May Day marks the halfway point between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and it is traditionally the only day of the year on which farmers did not work. Its observance is agriculturally motivated and honours the sown fields starting to sprout.
In Roman times May Day festivities were dedicated to Flora, the goddess of nature, flowers and spring. Themes of vitality and fertility recur in many May Day traditions, including the practice of rolling in the hay (which is exactly what you think it is). It is believed that the tradition of June weddings was a direct consequence of promiscuous May Day antics. Even the seemingly innocuous traditions of maypole dancing, crowning a May king and queen, gathering green branches and wild flowers and weaving floral garlands were intended to promote fertility in the land, farm animals and humans.
Some Things You May Not [Need to] Know About Maypole Dancing
Maypole dancing originated 2000 years ago, when Roman soldiers’ celebrated spring by dancing around trees decorated in honour of the goddess, Flora. The May Day tradition of maypole dancing is around 600 years old and is said to have started in wales and Scotland before moving into England.
Here are some things you probably don’t need to know about maypole dancing, but may come in useful in a country dancing round it a strange pub quiz one day:
- Traditionally, pairs of boys and girls hold a ribbon each and dance around the maypole to create a pretty pattern with the ribbons. The dance moves are then reversed to undo the pattern. This is said to represent the lengthening of the days as summer approaches.
- Up until the end of the 19th century, maypole dancing was often considered to be anti-Christian and was repeatedly banned.
- The maypole dance was most probably a fertility rite symbolising the union of the masculine and feminine (which is probably why it kept getting banned, because that sounds a bit too sexy for the village green).
Spring Bank Holiday
The second bank holiday in May used to fall anywhere between the end of May and the beginning of June, as it was linked to the Christian calendar and was celebrated the day after Pentecost, which is seven Sundays after Easter Sunday (which itself moves around depending on the phase of the moon). Since 1971 however, this bank holiday has always been held on the last Monday of May.
May Birthstone – Emerald
It is entirely fitting that emerald should be the birthstone for May. Each year at this time we become the audience and judging panel for elements in nature as they compete to be the greenest. Is it the grass, the new leaves on the trees, the uncurling fern fronds or the foliage of the emerging spring bulbs?? Green is a colour associated with optimism, youth, vitality and renewal and verdant nature seems to be trying its hardest to boost our mood and make us feel more positive in May.
Distil all that energy and vibrancy into a gemstone and you have an emerald. Emerald is a form of Beryl that has come into contact with trace amounts of chromium. This gives it its beautiful green colour. First mined by the Ancient Egyptians, emeralds were prized by Cleopatra and featured in her royal jewellery. Today, more than 50% of the world’s emeralds come from Colombia.
A stone of inspiration and eternal patience, an emerald promotes contentment and loyalty. If emerald had an annoying catchphrase it would be ‘Calm down, calm down’. Emeralds promote balance, wisdom and patience, encouraging you to stand back and get some perspective when situations threaten to overwhelm you.
Inspirational People Born in May
Katharine Hepburn – 12th May 1907
A leading lady in Hollywood for more than 60 years, Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut to a surgeon father and a mother who led the women’s suffrage movement in the US. Katharine was raised to be confident and independent and became renowned for regularly wearing trousers at a time when most other women only wore skirts and dresses.
Following a series of unsuccessful films, Katharine was dubbed ‘box office poison’ in 1938. Apparently unperturbed by her critics, she went on to star in the hugely successful 1940 film adaptation of The Philadelphia Story and her path to greatness was secured. Until Meryl Streep came along, Hepburn held the record for the most Academy Award nominations. Streep now has 21 nominations, which far out strips Katharine’s 12, but in terms of Academy Award wins, Hepburn has four and Streep has three.
Her favourite tipple was whiskey and she once told Brian Blessed “When I smell whisky, I go absolutely out of my mind. Whisky is beauuuuuutiful. I smell whisky in a glass and I want it.”
Pierre Curie – 15th May 1859
Talented wives who are less famous than their husbands are two a penny, but you rarely find a famous wife with an equally talented husband whose name is less generally well-known. Pierre Curie is the physics professor husband of Marie Curie. His lesser fame (to people who haven’t studied science in much depth) may be due to his untimely death, in a street accident in Paris in 1906, but prior to his death he studied radioactive substances alongside Marie, and they jointly announced the discovery of radium and polonium in 1898. In 1903, they were co-winners of the Davy Medal of the Royal Society of London and the Nobel Prize for Physics.
Mary Cassatt – 22nd May 1844
A print maker and painter from Pennsylvania, Mary Cassatt was described by French journalist Gustave Geffroy as one of "les trois grandes dames" (the three great ladies) of Impressionism, alongside Marie Bracquemond and Berthe Morisot.
Cassatt spent most of her life in France, where she worked and exhibited with Impressionist painters including Degas and Monet. Although she benefitted from the wave of feminism that occurred in the 1840s and which gave women access to a greater number of educational institutions, Cassatt was a life-long advocate of equality for women. She campaigned for women’s voting rights in the 1910s and for equal access to travel scholarships in the 1860s. Much of Cassatt’s work depicts mother and child relationships, portraying women with dignity and drawing forth the meaningful inner lives of her subjects.
We love her for having the courage of her convictions. When her anti-suffrage sister-in-law boycotted one of her shows because it was organised in support of women’s suffrage, Cassatt responded by selling off paintings that had previously been destined for her heirs, including one inspired by the birth of her niece. BURN!
Margaret Fuller – 23rd May 1810
An activist for social reform, Margaret Fuller was vocal about the emancipation of slaves, overhauling the prison system and women’s rights. Her early education was provided at home, by her father, but she later progressed to formal education at Port School in Cambridgeport and the Boston Lyceum for Young Ladies.
In her 30s she was widely believed to be the best-read person in New England and was the first woman allowed to use the library at Harvard College.
A journalist and translator, Fuller was the first female war correspondent, and her book Women in the Nineteenth Century, is considered to be the first major feminist work in the US. In a letter to a friend in 1845 she wrote;
"I had put a good deal of my true self in it, as if, I suppose I went away now, the measure of my footprint would be left on earth."
This is even more poignant given that, only five years later, Fuller, her son (Angelino) and her partner (Giovanni Ossoli) all died in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York. A tragic reminder that we should all try to live a life that we would be proud to have imminently eulogised.