Updated: Jul 22, 2021
"As full of spirit as the month of May". William Shakespeare
It's May 1st. May Day. The heralder of Spring. Well not here in Australia. In this upside-down country it's Autumn - and yet look - the first wattle blossom. The sun shines. It's twenty four degrees and I'm sitting outside in the sunshine tapping away on my laptop. I also saw a large patch of daisies yesterday, and what could be more springlike than that?
"May and June, soft syllables, gentle names for the two best months in the garden year: cool, misty mornings gently burned away with a warming spring sun, followed by breezy afternoons and chilly nights. " Peter Loewer
And it's sort of strange how those words could be describing our autumn. I don't know about gardening here, although I do remember, back in the day when I was planting new gardens, that autumn was actually considered the best time of year for planting seedlings as they did not then have to confront the heat and potential lack of water of summer just as they were trying to grow. Here in Melbourne, autumn is actually considered to be the best time of year I think. The temperatures are still generally warm to mild, there is not too much rain or wind and honestly it's rather beautiful. Productive too. And May in particular perhaps is the real change of seasons month as the summer fruits begin to disappear - even the greenhouse ones - and the winter fruits and vegetables come in. And therein lies the difference between the northern hemisphere spring and the southern hemisphere autumn. Well in certain parts of both. Not elsewhere in Australia though - well not to the north where the cyclone season is flexing its muscles. Rain and wind that sometimes cause worse disaster than bushfire. Certainly not springlike.
Today as I walked back from the shops I saw that wattle blossom and lots of other flowers too - dandelions, pink flowers with oxalis kind of leaves, camellias - but I also saw autumn leaves, toadstools and mushrooms, autumn berries, and bonfires. Everyone it seemed was having a bonfire and what could be more autumnal than a bonfire?
Well actually May bonfires. It's an ancient pagan practice to have bonfires in May - at the festival of Beltane. Bonfires are lit and everyone dances around them, followed by sexual dalliances - in the past anyway, and probably now too. In many festivities the cattle were made to jump over the dying fires. People too. It was a sort of fertility rite, and also, for the cattle, to mark the move to their summer pastures. The Romans too had May Day festivities for the goddess Flora - of the flowers, and in a later version for Dionysius and Aphrodite which somewhat obviously, featured orgies. So yes - it was all about fertility after the dark and cold of winter's hibernation. A somewhat bawdier follow up to the rebirth of Easter.
May Day in the northern hemisphere signals Spring. Which is a little bit odd because the spring equinox on March 21st is long gone and the summer solstice in June is rapidly approaching. But then often spring does not really begin until May when the fruit trees begin to blossom. In England - because that's what I grew up with - May Day, as one writer said, is the three Ms - Morris dancers, Maypoles and May Queens - although I vaguely remember that we called the last - the Queen of the May.
At school - well Primary school - we would have a maypole and would endlessly practice dancing around it so that we could make the required pattern on the pole. Fraught with disaster if you went the wrong way with your ribbon. A bit like missing the ball in some kind of team game - letting the team down. Once a mistake was made it became ever more disastrous. There are heaps of different patterns I believe, though we kept to the simplest which was basically alternating between going over and under the ribbons of the dancers going in the opposite direction. Simple but believe me it often went wrong. We did a bit of Morris Dancing too but I think that required more equipment. There were not enough of those little bells to go round. The May Queen, I suspect, may come from the time when the Catholic Church co-opted the May Day festivities into a festival for the Virgin Mary. Now defunct I think. The May Queen lingers on here and there though. I remember she would be dressed in white and have a wreath of spring flowers on her head. It was sort of a 'prettiest girl in the village' thing.
Interestingly though, in spite of all these festive traditions dating back centuries there are virtually no associated food traditions. In England the closest to this kind of thing is the custom of leaving anonymous small baskets of flowers on neighbours' doorsteps. Sometimes there were sweets but mostly flowers.
And whilst we are still on flowers. In France giving lilies of the valley on May Day is a tradition. This springs from one of their kings - one of the Charleses - being given a gift of some on May 1st. He was so taken by this that he instituted a custom of giving the ladies of the court a sprig of lily of the valley on that day. It's a custom that still exists - well not in the French court - there isn't one - but generally in France. In fact the French government allows individuals and organisations to sell them tax free on that day. A lovely custom. It's one of my favourite flowers and certainly one of my favourite perfumes. Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive list of other customs elsewhere.
But not very many of them feature food. In fact it seems that in Europe really only Finland has anything exclusively May Day to eat or drink - namely funnel cakes and sima. Sima is basically mead. A fermented honey and water drink with the addition of lemon. Funnel cakes are so named for the funnel through which a sweet batter is poured in swirls into hot oil, and then dusted with icing sugar. Yum.
Taste, interestingly enough (it's Australian) has a recipe. Mind you this may be because apparently:
"A quintessential part of every American street fair is a crispy funnel cake."
In America they are believed to have been introduced by the Pennsylvania Dutch - which is not Finnish, but almost Scandinavian I guess. In Finland they are called Tippaleipä and are definitely a May Day thing. Not in America it seems. I also thought that there was an Italian dessert which was very similar, but I have not been able to find one, and, in fact I may well have been thinking of the Indian jalebi, which are indeed similar, but not quite as higgledy-piggledy looking.
Then there is the other May Day. The one where the workers march and the communist powers display their weaponry. I thought this was something to do with Russian communism, but no it actually dates back to 1889 and Chicago where a rally in support of a workers' strike went horribly wrong, resulting in a massacre. It actually wasn't on May 1st - but on May 4th, but nevertheless May 1st was instituted as a result as International Workers Day - more commonly known as May Day. And, as I say, definitely in the Cold War Years anyway it seemed to be an opportunity for the Communist nations to hold big nationalistic rallies demonstrating that their weapons were bigger than ours. In Australia and many other nations we have Labour Day - which is in March not May. In fact May Day just passes us by here at the bottom of the world.
Last May Day thing. And this is something I have learnt today. "Mayday, mayday, mayday" - the international call signalling extreme and urgent distress. It has nothing to do with May. It is actually an anglicisation of the French 'm'aidez' which means 'help me'. Prior to the introduction of Mayday the morse code SOS was used. However when morse code was discontinued and we turned to voice messages, the international community (headed by the English-speaking world), decided on Mayday as this was very clear and SOS was not as easy to say. It is repeated three times so that one can be sure of hearing the word correctly. Ironic isn't it that it's actually French?
Mayflies - beautiful things that dance and mate and then die - all in one day in spring. How very Beltane. Mayflower - the flower of the hawthorn - which is now putting out its berries here in our May - and also the name of the first ship of settlers in America - now that was the birth of something really big - and lots of procreation - and massacres too.
So May Day. A big day ignored down here in the antipodes. A potent mix of birth and death; savagery, demonstrations of power and innocence; new birth - and here in Australia a last flush of abundance before a winter hibernation.
So why are there not more food traditions?