30 April 2006

Jack Be Nimble!

May Day tomorrow, and if you live in the UK then most will relate the day to the pagan festival of Beltaine, with Maypoles and spring fairs, Morris dancers and beer, although the inexorable link between the latter two seems to be practical rather than mystical.

The Green Man, Jack of the Green, represented new life and fertility in all its forms, although its probably the spiritual connotation of new life that caused Jack to be adopted as a decoration in so many Christian Cathedrals, much in the same way as Tao Christians depict the Christ rising out of a lotus blossom, as a way of honouring the best values which could cause a local to adhere to the 'new' religion.

Traditionally May Day was the day to extinguish all the fires in the house, that had burned solidly through the winter or even the whole year. A new fire would be started overnight or early morning, in the centre of the village, set up by nine men using wood from the nine sacred trees. Often the fires were lit on hilltops, allowing the witness to view fires appearing all across the countryside and to know that all was well with neighbouring villages and relatives. In itself this was a celebration, that the weather was good enough to start a fire in open, flat land with no protection. Then at the end of the celebrations each family would take a torch from that fire to start new home hearths. If you were going to sweep out soot and ash and scrub the firestone, then early on May Day was the one time to do it - spring cleaning.

A bit of a party followed the lighting of the central village fire, young men who managed to leap over the fire, or between two fires, guaranteed good things for their household or success for any journeys they had planned, but by the late 18th century this rather dangerous tradition existed really only as leaping candles - the first recorded mention of Jack be Nimble, the childrens nursery rhyme which probably refers to the Green Man (or the villager called upon to play him, opposite the May Queen) was written in 1796. See this site for other fire jumping games and traditions that grew out of the event.

It's a tenuous link, but there is no reason to suppose that Morris dancing did not stem from the May Day fire lighting and the leaping about that went on. It would explain the carrying of sticks, or handkerchiefs as representations of small flames, also why in some areas Morris dancers traditionally perform with soot on their faces. The term 'morris' in Morris dancing most likely stems from the latin word 'mores', meaning 'a custom', so the origins were lost to history even in Shakespeare's time.

The Maypole was shared by several local villages, who would round up all the young maidens just hitting puberty and send them to dance. Each would dance holding a coloured ribbon which represented their village - the other end of the ribbon would be attached to the top of the maypole and decorated with a flower in honour of the Goddess Flora, Queen of the flowers. The eventual Queen of the May was a combination of two, Lady Flora and Lady May.

There isn't much around to say whether villages also banded together for the Chain Dance.

As with any celebration it seems the origins, to celebrate Flora and Jack and to hope for signs of a good, fertile year, were gradually taken over by the well meaning party organisers, although some traditions survived longer than others. It became a proper knees-up and actually ran over two days - Flora's festival rightly being both the last day of April and the first day of May.

Originally everybody who was up for it slept out of doors on May Eve, in the greenwood, and pretty obviously, with privacy then not being what it is today plus the connotations of fertility, many deliberately went out to the woods for a night of nooky. Politer (ie later, more Victorian) histories describe only the young adults running off to the woods after midnight to come back at dawn bedecked with all the flowers and/or at least evergreen branches, that they could find.

Teenagers out without the grown-ups with lots of moonlight, soft moss and large tree trunks about - yeah right. That simply makes it harder to work out whether hanky panky was officially on the menu or just an unspoken advantage.

Then there were the parades where a maid and adult male were chosen to be honoured as Jack and Flora - Flora being all about beauty and freshness, The Green Man being more stern and immutable. The first beauty queen and he-man competitions, then. All in all a day or two to celebrate spring, with very strong links not just to the origins of spring cleaning, but spring fever also.

Such a shame, then, that the most common blessing uttered these days is simply "Happy Bank Holiday"; I might have to talk Husband into having a bonfire tonight.

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Lunaura Harvest said...

Heey, that's a great post, i really enjoyed the read, thankyou. I was thinking of doing a maypole for the Beltane festival with the coven, but i'm still short of a pole!!
Anyway, have a great festival however you choose to celebrate it :)

Brightest Blessings,

Haddock said...

That was really interesting . Thank you.

Universal Soldier said...


Stegbeetle said...

Let's hope we can all keep our personal fires burning over the next year.
Blessed be!

Rain said...

yes, this was interesting! I learned so much.

TLC said...

Here in America, not a lot is done for May Day. Which is surprising, because many use any excuse to celebrate and drink.

Interesting post!

Le laquet said...

Ah Morris dancers .... only in the UK could we have so much fun watching drunken bearded men in dresses dancing with bells on their ankles! They were out in force for the Sweeps festival in Rochester over the weekend and boy-o-boy can they drink.

zilla said...

Lovely, informative post. Vocabulary lesson, please: knees-up? What's the derivation of this phrase?

Happy May Day!

M'aidez! M'aidez!

'Round these parts, if we're lucky, someone will hang a basket of posies on the doorknob, ring the bell, and run away. That's all I've ever known of May Day.

She Weevil said...

halan tow or whatever it is they say!

Badaunt said...

That was enlightening. So many reasons to have a holiday - and here IT ISN'T ONE! Someone should tell the Japanese government about the Green Man. We need to celebrate him here, too.

(We do have Wednesday, Thursday and Friday off, though...)

ella m. said...

Today is actually my evil mate's birthday...he'll be quite pleased to know that there is both reason and precedent for any sort of large fire in the name of celebration.

As always, an excellent and informative read. How are you?

Just another American Expat said...

Very infomative. The only thing that worries me is the bit about:

"The Maypole was shared by several local villages, who would round up all the young maidens just hitting puberty and send them to dance. Each would dance holding a coloured ribbon which represented their village..."

In good ole Fox Hill, Virginia, the boys dance too. I was one of them. No wonder I get so many strange looks when I say, "Oh yeah, I danced around the May Pole."

Writer Mom said...

Golly, I had no idea!
Next year, our Jack is getting dressed up in green. If there's any candle jumping, I don't want to know about it.
Pickles can play Flora. She usually goes with more natural & traditional garb (Leaves in her hair. Dirt between her toes.) Holidays around here are so dang boring.
Just a little aside: When Tom and I first dated, we reached that point of wanting to take things to the next level. It must have been obvious. I informed my father that Tom and I were spending the weekend at my college apartment because I needed to do some banking. Dad said, "I know what banking means." He sure did. Hubba hubba.
Gave "Happy Bank Holiday" a different meaning for me. Next year!

fineartist said...

I remember dancing around the May pole on May day in St Joseph Missouri when I was five years old. We all had colored crepe paper streamers and we were winding them around the pole as we circled. I also remember making May baskets and crepe paper flowers to put in them. Like Zilla mentioned we would hang them on door handles, knock, and run off to hide in the bushes and watch the neighbors come to take them in. My grandmother taught us these traditions.

She never mentioned the Beltane fires though. Nope.

I had to wait many years to read about them in the Mists Of Avalon…some racy fires those were.

This post was cool as heck, loved it, enjoyed it, feel enlightened by it. X’s and o’s, Lori