It's only a three-letter word but it has a variety of meanings. It can indicate permission or possibility and at the same time in another guise it also conjures up in the mind all sorts of blossoming, burgeoning and blooming.
The word I am referring to is «may» — as a verb «It may rain this afternoon». «May I wish you every success» and starting with a capital letter of course it is the name for the fifth month of the year. Let's forget about the verb and concentrate on the month.
The German poet Heinrich Heine celebrated it in a poem describing it as the «wonderful month of May when all the flowers show off their buds». It is a significant time as far as clothing is concerned. There is an old saying that runs; «Never cast a clout till May is out». This roughly translated means: Never remove an article of clothing (clout) till the end of May. I think this refers to a time — I hasten to add a long time ago — when children in the country villages were sewn up in their clothes throughout the winter months in case they caught a cold and then at the end of May they could remove some of their clothing. On a slightly more pleasant theme we speak of May Day as the Spring festival when people would dance round the Maypole and in the villages a young woman of particular beauty would be chosen as the May Queen.
There is about this month something akin to an awakening. First April hints that there is hope of better weather but May is the official announcement that it is almost safe to go out and really enjoy the sunshine. As the old song has it: «Though April showers may come your way/They bring the flowers that bloom in May». Even financiers with loads of money are told: «Sell in May and Go away». That is they must sell their shares and then go on holiday to places like the Bahamas or Bermuda. For the rest of us it is the time of year that we hope to make the best of. Pity the poor May fly who only has one day to live — just imagine how he enjoys himself! The question is does he know he has just the one day? Does he have time to look at a poem by Shakespeare? If he read this from one of the sonnets, no doubt that would ruin his one and only day:
«Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.»
But of course weather isn't the only feature of this month of May. We must remember that May 1st is international Workers' Day when the famous Red Flag hymn is sung with the stirring opening lines: «The people's flag is deepest red/It shrouded oft our martyred dead». Let's not forget the religious significance either. After all Whitsun, occurring in May, as celebrated in the Christian church is the seventh Sunday after Easter and is regarded as the birthday of Christianity. In fact Whit Sunday is frequently chosen for baptism and as people baptised are often dressed in white, it was probably originally known as White Sunday.
The sudden onset of May sunshine can also have a strange effect on some people. In a small village in England called St Braivels after the church service on the evening of Whit Monday, basketfuls of bread and cheese are thrown from a wall near the ancient castle and are scrambled for in a lane below. Apparently they've been doing this since the 13th century when it all started as a form of payment for the villagers to have the right to cut timber from a wood nearby. And on the first Sunday in May a ceremony called cheese rolling takes place in a village near Cambridge. Three round cheeses are rolled round around the church, one is cut up and shared with bystanders and the other two are rolled down a steep hill. The winners (those whose cheese reaches the bottom first) are awarded a 16 pound cheese and several bottles of port.
Mind you I promise your correspondent isn't likely to be doing strange things because as I look through my study window at the start of the glorious month of May, I can see and hear something a little too familiar — buckets of rain coming down.
If you have any questions or comments regarding this essay, please post your answers on the forum here: The merry month of May