For many of us in the Northern hemisphere, the month of May signifies a time when if summer is now definitely coming, then at least the winter is certainly behind us. The weather is warmer, the trees are in blossom, and the nights are growing longer. Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker dubbed it The Merry Month of May, there's the tradition of dancing round a Maypole, and jolly songs like Here We Go Gathering Nuts in May. So then with the brightening weather, the sap rising and flowers blooming, May is a popular month for lovers to finally tie the knot... However the annals of folklore beg to differ!
According to folklore and superstition, generally May is considered an unlucky month. But best known, or perhaps that should be best remembered, of all the folk beliefs about May is the widespread claim that it is the unluckiest month to get married. As an old, and still frequently quoted, rhyme has it -
And over the other side of the pond, things weren't much better - consider this old American folk rhyme recorded in Kentucky Superstitions by Daniel Lindsey Thomas and Lucy Blayney Thomas (Princeton University Press 1920) -
And if that wasn't enough, a third oft-quoted rhyme alleged that -
So then while the above three verses give somewhat variable results to the other eleven months of the year, they are in complete accord that May is not a merry month to be marrying in! And as all good folklorists know, three is the charm! More seriously though, the belief that May is an unlucky month for marriages is extremely widespread and very old.
However it is perfectly true that in Victorian society, May was widely considered to be an unlucky month in which to marry. But where does this superstition originate? Well, it is often claimed that the belief dates back to the ancients. A commonly bandied about theory states that the beginning of May was the festival of Beltane for the ancient Celts, who celebrated it with wild fertility rites involving large outdoor orgies. And hence with all this socially-approved nookie going on, it was a terrible time to get hitched and miss out on all that free love.
It's an entertaining notion, I'll grant you that, but it does suffer from one slight drawback... It's complete codswallop! To begin with, Beltane is actually an old Irish Gaelic festival, and it is only theorised that perhaps it dates back to the Celts. Secondly from the literature and historical records we do have we know that Beltane marked the start of the summer, when livestock was put out to pasture once more. Hence it was celebrated with sacred fires to drive away evil spirits and purify the animals and the lands for the coming summer months. In short, while Beltane is obviously linked with improving agriculture and by extension fertility, at the same time, while we have several historical sources attesting to bonfires, and assorted folk traditions involving lighting fires, there's no mention anywhere of ancient people staging public orgies.
Now it is true that there are many folk traditions, dating back at least as far as medieval times, that are possibly survivals of ancient pagan rituals celebrating fertility. The common tradition of electing a May Queen, and in some areas, a May King, to lead May Day processions have been theorised to be the cultural echoes of ancient rites where people honoured assorted earth mothers or love goddesses, as incarnations of spring being reborn after winter. However, again while such rural customs might be echoes of pre-Christian religious rites, again there is no evidence that these fertility rituals involved community orgies. Indeed said rituals are largely hypothetical rather than properly historically documented.
But it is true that the concept of May being unlucky for marriages does date back to ancient times. However we should not be looking to the mysterious Celts, but further south to Rome. For indeed, the Romans had a saying "mense Maio malae nubent" which translates as "they wed ill who wed in May". Now this belief originates with the Roman festivals that were held in May, and no, they didn't involve orgies either. On the 9th, 11th and 13th of May (and according to some sources another two dates as well at different points in Classical history), the Romans celebrated Lemuria, the festival of the dead.
This was a series of household rites where at midnight the head of the family would ritually purify himself - washing with pure water and donning fresh clothes without any knots, and walk around the entire home and property, casting black beans behind him, and intoning a special prayer nine times. The family and household would follow him, and at the conclusion of the recitation of the prayer, bang assorted instruments made of brass, sometimes actual musical instruments and sometimes just pots and pans. Now the goal of these rituals was to drive away the Lemures - the spirits of the unquiet dead. In addition, during Lemuria sacrifices and remembrances would be held for the family's ancestors and deceased members so that their spirits did not grow restless and return to plague the living.
Furthermore Lemuria was book-ended by two other festivals. From April 28th to the 3rd May saw the Ludi Florales - the games of Flora, which saw outdoor events which included sports and theatre which celebrated the return of spring and to encourage fertility in the land. And the month of May closed with Ambravalia on the 29th of May, a festival honouring the earth goddess Ceres and involved a purification ritual for the fields to ensure fertility and good crops in the coming months. Therefore for the Romans, May was very much a month of spiritual housecleaning, setting up home and hearth for a fresh start after winter.
Hence it was a time for setting one’s house in order, but not an appropriate time to set up a brand new household. During this time it was thought unwise to begin a marriage before these cleansings had been completed. And as Lemuria was a home based festival, the temples of the gods were actually closed. As Ovid said of Lemuria in Fasti, his epic poem detailing the Roman festivals throughout the year -
Given the extent of the Roman Empire, you can understand how this belief was spread across Europe. Also as one of the prime sources of information about Classical times, naturally Ovid's words informed later European superstitions and beliefs. And while European customs of remembering the dead aggregated around the end of the agricultural year with the medieval establishment of All Hallows at the end of October (see my Origins of Halloween podcast for more details), evidently the idea that May was an unlucky month for marriage persisted.
However in the annals of folklore, the fifth month was ill omened for a variety of other activities too. In Scotland, where they placed much store in the old proverb "marry in May, rue the day", it was also said to be hazardous for a young mother to be weaning her children in this month too. Possibly this too derives from the same ancient beliefs that the rites of Lemuria tainted the month, for there was a more widespread belief that children born in May were destined for ill-luck. Many folkloric sources that warn it is unlucky to marry in May add the sinister line that children born in this month "die in decay", holding that "a May baby is always sickly, you may try but never rear it". A common taunt to those unlucky enough to be born in this month was "you are but a May cat".
And what pray tell is a May cat? Well, obviously these were kittens born in the fifth month, and like their human counterparts they too were held to be sickly and weak. Indeed the May malaise touched other branches of the animal kingdom too, with May ducklings being said to be more likely to sprawl and in Dorset it was said that colts born in the May would have the unfortunate habit of lying down in any water you tried to ride them through.
But it is the humble cat who gets the worst share of folklore here. For in addition to being sickly, May cats who did survive had the widespread reputation of being somewhat useless. According to many sources, a May cat would not make a good mouser, with many holding that not only would they be rubbish at keeping down the local rats and mice, but would also bring venomous reptiles, worms and snakes into the house instead. In some places it was even said that it was May cats that would creep into beds and cots and steal your breath away...
Again this is possibly related to the rites of Lemuria. Cats were popular pets in ancient Rome, and were associated with Diana, goddess of hunting and Libertas, the goddess of freedom. Furthermore they were the only animals allowed in the temples, hence as the temples were closed during this Roman festival possibly this is why cats born in May are ill omened, having been denied the presence of the gods. However given that the superstitions about May cats are localised to the British Isles, perhaps we shouldn't be stretching back to the Classical world, and instead looking for connections closer to home.
Certainly in British folklore, May is a hazardous month. For example, you've postponed your wedding, are not expecting a child, and even the cat is not having kittens so surely you're safe to get on with a bit of housework and make ready for the summer... Wrong! Stop right there! Firstly leave that winter bedding in place! "Wash blankets in May, you'll soon be under clay" says the lore of Oxfordshire, while in Bristol it is said "wash a blanket in May, wash a loved one away". Ok so we're leaving the bedding alone! How about getting some lighter clothes for the summer? Well, that is out too - "don't cast a clout, until May is out" says an old British proverb - "clout" an old English word for "clothes".
Now the reasons for these strictures and taboos on changing bedding and garments in the month of May we can trace to a different origin other than ancient Roman festivals of the dead; indeed it is perhaps the origin of much of the other lore of ill luck in May too. And like many things in the British Isles, it comes down to the weather. The clearest indication, and indeed explanation comes from an 1852 publication, The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine Almanack, where it is written -
And there we have it - from sickly kids and kittens, to keeping cosy blankets and coats - all these forms of ill luck in the fifth month we can attribute to the changeable weather in May. Now for years it was thought that it was just an old wives' tale that getting cold can lead to catching a cold, but recent scientific research has shown that there is truth in the old saying. For, in basic terms, when your body has to work harder to regulate your temperature, your immune system becomes less effective; in particular the body's heat saving device of constricting blood flow means there are less white blood cells in the blood vessels to fight incoming germs and viruses.
Naturally infants are more prone to infection, and by getting caught out in cold weather, by not having your winter coat or having ditched the winter bedding, adults are at risk too. And as we don't commonly associate May with a time for colds, flu or infections, to fall ill in this month was seen as bad luck. Hence it turns out that the dire warnings about the month of May are founded not in superstition or ancient rites, but based on practical observances that folks were at risk of falling ill at an unexpected time of the year.