Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth, and I hope you've been reveling in the emergence of growth from the ground and trees. Another transitional period is approaching and with it some Irish traditions. This is the celebration of May Day. May Day is a pagan holiday that marks the beginning of summer. It is traditionally celebrated on May 1st, but in Ireland, it is often celebrated on the first Monday of May.
May Day was regarded as the symbolic start of a busy season of farm work. People worked in the fields moving their animals to different pastures. It was a busy time for markets for selling animals and at this time seasonal laborers were hired. The important job of cutting turf in the bogs also started in earnest around May Day.
Historically on the 1st of May, tenant farmers paid their half-yearly rents to landlords – these were known as ‘Gale Days’. People also took stock of their food supply that had to sustain them until the crops could be harvested later in the year.
As an offset to all of this labor, on May Day, people would gather in fields and forests to dance around maypoles, sing songs, and feast on traditional foods like colcannon (a delicious mash of potatoes, cabbage, with lots of butter) and bacon.
The Maypole was originally a tree. Its erect position represented masculine energy while the ribbons and garlands extending from it, held by dancers weaving around each other, represented feminine energy. Like spring and the plants themselves, the interweaving of both energies is essential for life.
In ancient times, the Irish would also light bonfires to ward off evil spirits around this time.
Activities such as fishing, hunting, and hiking are popular around this time. With the warmer weather, people enjoy the outdoors and the beautiful scenery of the island. Having just returned from Ireland, I will tell you, the landscape is palpable. You're reminded daily that humans are a very small part of an always stunning but sometimes brutal ecosystem. At one point the wind was blowing so hard that we were stopped in our tracks. I imagined jumping into the air and being carried for miles. My camera is overloaded with images. It seemed that every few hundred yards, another breathtaking vista would appear before us.
Here are some other Irish traditions and customs associated with this transition to summer that you may want to integrate into a May Day ritual.
****Blessing of the animals: On the first Sunday of May, many Irish would bring their animals to church to be blessed by the priest. This is believed to protect them from harm throughout the year. If you're not affiliated with a religion, perhaps using a smudge stick to cleanse negativity and uttering some words of safekeeping to your ancestors aligns with you.
****Dancing at the crossroads: On May Eve, people would gather at crossroads to dance and sing. This was believed to bring good luck and prosperity. I have visions of this happening on street corners in Brooklyn and am grinning ear to ear. My dad and my uncles would sing harmony on street corners when they were growing up and then later at every family gathering. It's powerful.
****Planting potatoes: The first potato crop of the year is planted on May 1st. This is a time to celebrate the harvest and hope for a good crop in the coming year. In the northeast, this is also a good time to start your outdoor plantings since the threat of frost has passed.
****Making May baskets: Children would make baskets out of flowers and leaves and give them to their neighbors. This was a way to show appreciation and welcome in the spring/summer. Here's a cute DIY basket if you're feeling inspired.
Whether you are Irish or not, this is a time to celebrate the beauty of the landscape and the renewal of life. Get outside, go for a walk, and notice the emergence of new growth and life.
This is also a reminder that registration for the next Level 1 Herbalism Class ends tomorrow April 12th. Classes start May 3rd, we meet every other week for 6 classes. Reach out (by responding to this email), if you haven't already let me know you're interested in taking the class. Find out more here.
Spiral Herbal Remedies is an Herbal Apothecary located at 810 Washington Ave in Brooklyn. Donna Troy Cleary is the founder/owner. She studied Herbalism for 3 years and prior to that, worked at a Harvard teaching hospital as a Registered Nurse for 13 years. She makes all of the teas, salves, and tinctures for the shop, with organic ingredients and lots of love. She carries forward a tradition of Herbalism from both sides of her family. They worked as Herbalists in Ireland for hundreds if not thousands of years.
You can also order all products at spiralherbalremedies.com Use the code MAYDAY for 10% off. This coupon is good until April 24th.