• Introduction to Proto-Indo-European Religion
• Indo-European Languages
• Proto-Indo-European Goddesses
• Proto-Indo-European Myths
• Proto-Indo-European Rituals
• Festivals, Food and Farming
• May Day 1
• May Day Songs
• May Day 2
This page introduces the May Day Revels, which among the Indo-Europeans are generally for *Pria, the
Goddess of Spring Flowers. In the Germanic languages, she is known as
Freya. The traditional activities most associated with May Day especially in England are dew gathering, hawthorn flower gathering, and May dancing, music and romantic love. All over northern Europe and in England, people danced around Maypoles. There is so much information about May Day that I have divided it into four separate pages on this website. To make it easier to find the various topics, here is a Table of Contents for all four pages.
The festival of May Day is normally celebrated out of doors and consists of welcoming the warmer weather in spring which allowed people to resume a life of more comfort and freedom without the need to wear heavy clothes, work to
keep warm or huddle indoors. Music is an essential part of any festivity, so interspersed with this
discussion will be charms, songs and dances and entire operas connected to May festivals. Most of
the entries are in English and some other Germanic languages, and most of them
are related to the Celtic and Germanic forms of Indo-European
religion. Although this study is based on linguistic research
on the Indo-European religion, most of these songs were chosen because they are traditional, pretty and
fairly easy to learn and they relate to the loveliness of May-time. They are numbered for convenience.
Walpurgisnacht, Walpurga’s NightThis festival is most widely celebrated on May Day, now set to the 1st of May, but Spring is celebrated on various days all through the month. Beltaine, as the name is in Celtic countries, is also now set to the 1st day of May, which is fixed in the annual calendar. But back when the calendars were still set by the phases of the moon, it would have fallen on the 1st New Moon of the 5th month (depending on when you think the year begins, here set to January for convenience). This means that Walpurgis Night would have fallen on the dark of the moon. The same scenario, with the festival beginning on the dark of the moon on the night before the new month, applies to Halloween and Samhain, and probably the other cross quarter festivals.
Walpurgisnacht ‘Walpurga’s Night,’ when the festival actually begins, is April 30, the evening before May Day. Walpurga is a byname of Freya and is also found related to her or to her myth in cognate forms in other Indo-European languages. This time of year coincides loosely with the first dew fall, that is the time of year when frost no longer forms at night, but rather the temperature remains above freezing at least for some of the nights. This change in the weather allows the growth of green things and the blooming of all the flowers. This in turn allows for the cattle to be turned out of their winter quarters and released to feed on the new grass which increases the amount and quality of milk available to humans.
Walpurgisnacht is not named after St. Walburga, as is commonly said, although there actually may have been a person named Walburga. She is said to have been a sister to Saints Winibald and Willibald and she wrote biographies of her famous brothers. She probably carries the ancient name of the Goddess in Anglo-Saxon either because her mother valued it or because it was still a popular name in her family or society. However, the saint’s name became attached to the festival as a way of “explaining” the meaning of the name of the holiday. St. Walburga’s feast day is set to May 1st because that was already the name of a major festival of Freya. The pretense that the festival of Walpurgisnacht is named for St. Walburga provides a convenient way of obscuring the festival’s older Pagan origin.
1. Charm for Walpurgis Dew or Walpurgisthau
A free translation for “Fairy Jewels” or the Walpurgis Dew Charm might be:
Dear good Walpurga, bring to me,
There are more songs related to May dew further on.
2. Dr. Faustus and Walpurgisnacht
The original poem “Faust” with text by Goethe inspired many other artistic creations. There are many operas about Faust, but the most popular has a score by Charles Gounod. As was customary at the time, Gounod’s opera has an Intermezzo. There are a number of different versions of the intermezzo, some performed as part of the opera and others completely reimagined as separate ballet performances, independent of the opera. The opera score by Charles Gounod is published by Schirmer. This has the vocal score while the complete ballet music by Leo Delibes is in an appendix, pp. 300-323. There is a very nice performance of the ballet Walpurgis Night as a Bacchanalia, by the Bolshoi Theatre with the very sprightly Walpurgis night dance.
3. Die Erste Walpurgisnacht
The music for the operetta Die Erste Walpurgisnacht with the setting by Felix Mendelssohn, and with a contemporary English translation by William Bartholomew, is published in an edition by John Michael Cooper. There are, of course, several recordings on CD’s, and a version that is on YouTube at the moment is Mendelssohn's Die Erste Walpurgisnacht by the Philharmonia Orchestra. Strophe 1, Es Lacht der Mai, is a Welcome May song and it is very beautiful. #meddance
Medieval May DancingIn the Middle Ages, people used to make little booths or shelters of the branches of trees and spend the day feasting and making merry on the lawns, with music, singing, and dancing. May Day is an out-of-doors festival. Many secular songs were recorded on the continent long before secular music was notated in England, and there are entire genres of secular music known from Europe from the early Middle Ages.
4. Maiden in the Moor Lay
Maiden in the moor lay
There are several performances of this song, each very different because the exact way the words and music should go together is debatable. Mediæval Bæbes whisper Maiden in the Mor Lay on the Undrentide CD. A much better performance of Maid in the Moor Lay by Anúna can be heard on YouTube and it has a really good video although it seems to be based on Peter Dronke's bizarre theory. This performance was directed by Michael McGlynn on the self-titled Anúna CD where it can also be heard. The christianized version called Peperit Virgo is performed by Anonymous 4 on the Yoolis Night CD, if you wish to compare.
5. Willekommen Mayenschein
6. O Tyt Zeer Lustich by Tielman Susato
O tyt zeer lustich, vul melodyen,This is translated by Timothy McTaggart as:
O happy time, full of joy,
Unfortunately this song is quite morose, but there are other May songs. The songs with music and words and a very nice scholarly apparatus are published in Musyck Boexken, Books 1 and 2, Dutch Songs for four voices by Tielman Susato, ed. by Timothy McTaggart as Volume 108 in Recent Researches in the Music of the Renaissance. The songs have been recorded by the Egidius Kwartet (voices) and the Egidius Consort (instruments) and “O Tyt Zeer Lustich” is #19 on Disc 2 in the Egidius recordings.
May Dances in German
7. Alter Reigen um das erste Veilchen
Der Meie, der MeieYou can also find the music for Alter Reihentanz um das erste Veilchen on an ABC notation page.
Ich spring an disem ringe
9. Ringel Ringel Reihe
Ringel Ringel Reihe,A Holderbusch is a mulberry bush. Another video shows how to dance to it on YouTube. This is exactly the way we used to dance to “Ring Around the Rosie”. #child
May Day Customs for ChildrenThere are many lovely customs for children at this time of year and I just want to mention a few of them.
Making Daisy Chains
10. Nuts in May, Game and Song
Here we come gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May.
Whom will you have for nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May?
We will have (Mary) for nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May.
Whom will you have to pull her away, pull her away, pull her away?
We will have (John) to pull her away, pull her away, pull her away.
Here is a little clip of a lady singing Nuts in May (on a cold and frosty morning) in case you don’t know the song. I had to click three times on this to get it to work, but you don't have to sign up for anything to listen.
May Flower Cones
Hawthorn Tree SongsIn England especially, May Day was associated with the blooming of the May trees or Hawthorn as they are also called. Hawthorn trees are so important in English custom that they have their own set of songs. They are certainly charming and it does no harm to gather their branches to decorate the house. Hawthorn trees are easy to recognize by their fluted trunks (see picture at the top of this webpage). They often grow by sacred wells and shade the wells and the hawthorn trees are themselves considered sacred. Since the changing of the calendar in 1752, the May trees no longer bloom on May Day, but often a week or ten days later, so it is a little bit difficult now to “bring home the May” on May 1st. In other Germanic-speaking countries, other plants are welcomed as harbingers of spring, roses in Germany since the Middle Ages, and the new green shoots of birch and fir trees in Scandinavia. The blooming of fruit trees was most welcome and carefully watched because they would represent the coming harvest of fruit later in the year which was an essential food for survival in northern winters. Although the blossoms of the fruit trees were probably always the most important part of this festival, they are not picked because that would decrease the harvest--every blossom is a potential fruit, and each one picked is one less fruit later in the year. However, the other plants mentioned, roses, birch and hawthorn are not much used as food, so they could be picked without loss to later food production.
11. At a Spring Well
12. Hawthorn Tree Poem (“Of every kind tree...”)
13. The Hawthorn Bush
’Twas in the pleasant month of May,14. The Hawthorne Tree
The words and music for The Hawthorne Tree are given on Digital Tradition, and it is from Chappell, Popular Music of the Olden Times, p. 65 which was first printed in 1810. According to the form of the language, it’s actually not very old, probably not earlier than the 1800’s. Like a lot of songs collected or published in that era, it looks like a puritan rewriting and I have skipped the misogynist ending.
It was a maid of my countryAside from At a Springe-wel, I couldn’t find any performances of these songs, so here are some other nice songs about Hawthorn Trees which you might like. First is Heather Gale singing the Hawthorn Tree from The Trial of Lancelot album. This is modern and very pretty and mysterious and the lyrics are included on the page. Another song about a hawthorn tree is Lady Kilmarnock's Lament or the Hawthorn Tree of Cawdor, sung by Lewis Lancaster with guitar. This doesn't really have anything to do with May Day, but it's very beautiful even though it's sad.
May Dew SongsGathering May Dew is an ancient tradition, and dew that was gathered on May 1st was considered especially powerful. A website in Ireland gives some information about May dew gathering. There are songs associated with this which are very old.
15. Sing Levy Dew
Here we bring new water from the well so clear,A variation of this song is sung by Waterson:Carthy under the title Residue or New Year Carol on the Holy Heathens CD. Residue appears to be a mishearing of Levy Dew, otherwise unexplainable, so we have our very own folk Mondegreen! It’s a safe bet that they didn’t learn this from Benjamin Britten who had a tendency to try to copyright traditional folk songs under his own name. In any case, the Waterson:Carthy lyrics have two more verses which they wrote, covering all four directions and it is charming as all their songs are. There is also a performance of “A New Year Carol” as #19 by Anonymous 4 on the Wolcum Yule CD, and I found several versions on YouTube, including this one of little kids singing A New Year Carol.
16. I Sing of a Maiden
I sing of a maiden that is makelesAs you can see by the words, this may look like a Christian song, and it is sung by Christians as a Christmas carol, but none of the Christian gods were born in April, nor at the “time of dew fall.” There is a very beautiful performance by Shirley Collins of I Sing of a Maiden from the Fountains of Snow CD, which you can listen to on YouTube.
The next section gives three May Day Songs which are sung in English for the Luck Visits connected to the sharing of May flowers, along with a recipe for Syllabub. These are followed by the May Day Revels, Part 2 which include Furry Day Songs and Dances, Maypole customs, Tree in the Wood songs and two Morris Dances which are suitable for Maypole dancing.
References• The Book of Festival Holidays, by Marguerite Ickis, Dodd, Mead & Co., NY, 1964.
• Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan by Clement A. Miles, Stokes, NY, 1912.
• Come Hither collected by Walter de la Mare, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1923.
• Deutsches Worterbuch by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, S. Hirzel, Leipzig, 1878.
• Die Erste Walpurgisnacht, setting by Felix Mendelssohn of 1832-33, with a contemporary English translation by William Bartholomew, ed. by John Michael Cooper, A.R. Editions, Middleton, Wisconsin, 2008, v. 49.
• Faust, opera by Charles Gounod, publ. G. Schirmer, NY, 1902. This is the vocal score with the complete ballet music by Leo Delibes in an appendix.
• Garners Gay, collected by Fred Hamer, EFDSS Pubs. Ltd., London, 1968.
• Geschichte des Tanzes in Deutschland by Franz M. Böhme, publ. Georg Olms Hildesheim, Weisbaden, 1967.
• Goethes Werke in Sechs Bänden, ed. Erich Schmidt. This is part of the Schriften der Goethe-gesellschaft (series), Insel-Verlag, Leipzig, (no date).
• Masterpieces of Music before 1750 by Carl Parrish & John Ohl, W. W. Norton & Co., NY, 1951.
• Medieval English Songs by E. J. Dobson and F. Ll. Harrison, Cambridge University Press, NY, 1979.
• Middle English Lyrics by Maxwell Luria and Richard Hoffman, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., NY, 1974.
• Music in the Age of Chaucer, Nigel Wilkins, publ. by D. S. Brewer, Cambridge, 1979.
• Musyck Boexken, Books 1 and 2, Dutch Songs for four voices by Tielman Susato, ed. by Timothy McTaggart as Volume 108 in Recent Researches in the Music of the Renaissance, publ. by A-R Editions Inc., Madison, Wisconsin, 1997.
• Oxford Book of Carols, ed. by Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw, Oxford University Press, London, 1928, 1964
• Popular Music in the Olden Time; by W. Chappell; Cramer, Beale & Chappell, London, 1859.
• Words and Music in the Middle Ages 1050-1350 by John Stevens, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1986.
This page was originally published at pierce.yolasite.com/mayday but Yola’s servers crashed back in April of 2011 and they could never get them to work right again. It’s happy I am to be somewhere where the servers work.
© 2011, last updated 5/4/2013, at piereligion.org/mayday.html