Bringing in the May
In old England, the young people went out into the woods on May Day Eve and stayed all night, returning in the morning, laden with flowers and green branches. The Puritan writer, Philip Stubbes, has an interesting way of explaining the nature of the sacred rites which took place in the woods: I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity, credit, and reputation; that of forty, threescore or a hundred maids going to the woods overnight, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.
Ben Jonson writes “Out of my doors, you sons of noise and tumult, begot on an ill May-day.” The children of May marriages were often called Jackson, Hodson, or Robinson since they were the children of the Jack in the Green, Hod (a woodland sprite), or Robin Goodfellow (or Robin Hood, another form of the Green Man).
Many May Day customs involve flowers and green branches. Flowers are woven into wreaths to exchange as gifts between lovers or to hang on doors as decoration. Or flowers are placed in baskets and left on doorsteps for the recipients to find when they arise in the morning. Hawthorn is particularly auspicious since it begins blooming when the weather is warm enough for planting. Anyone who went out into the woods and found a branch of flowering hawthorn (also called may) would bring it triumphantly into the village (thereby bringing in the May) and announcing the start of planting season. However, there were warnings about bringing hawthorn into the house, since it would invite the fairies in. Sometimes flowers were given as messages: plum for the glum, elder for the surly, thorns for the prickly, pear for the popular.