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Source global Wall Street Journal     time 2022-06-14 03:53:45
Typefacelarge in Small

x s min bc th su 30 ngy lin tip

The highest mood allowed To sinful creatures, for all happiness Worthy that holy name, seems steeped in tears, Like flowers in dew, or tinged with misty hues, Like stars in halo. John Wilson. And the more our humble classes come to taste of the pleasures of books and intellect, and the deep fireside affections which grow out of the growth of heart and mind, the less charms will the outward forms of rejoicing have for them. Beautiful and poetical, I grant, are many of the old rites and customs of which we have been speaking; but they are beautiful and poetical as belonging to their own times,—and many of them, I am inclined to believe, as seen in the distance; for, seen at hand, there is a vulgarity in most popular customs that offends invariably our present tastes. Nor do I mean to say that our present population cannot be cheerful. A more truly cheerful people never existed; and they can dance and be merry too when they will; as Christmas, and Whitsuntide, and their annual village feasts and their harvest-homes can testify. Since the Reformation, the saints of the calendar having become mere names in this country, their festivals have accordingly died away. Whitsuntide, Easter, and Christmas seem almost all that have maintained their stand; and of these we will speak a little; but in the first place let us have a few words on May-Day. CHAPTER III. MAY-DAY. May-day was celebrated with a gaiety and poetical grace far beyond all other festivals. It had come down from the pagan times with all its Arcadian beauty, and seemed to belong to those seasons more than to any Christian occasions. It is one that the poets have all combined to lavish their most delicious strains upon. The time of the year was itself so inspiring,—with all its newness of feeling, its buds and blossoms and smiling skies. It seemed just the chosen period for heaven and earth and youth to mingle their gladness together. There is no festivity that is so totally gone! Washington Irving in his very interesting account of his visit to Newstead Abbey, takes the opportunity to say, that he had been accused by the critics of describing in his Sketch Book popular manners and customs that had gone by, but that he had found those very customs existing in that neighbourhood. That those who doubted the accuracy of his statements must go north of the Trent. That he found May-poles standing in the old-fashioned villages, and that a band of plough-bullocks even came to the abbey while he was there. Washington Irving certainly seemed most agreeably impressed with the primitive air of that part of Nottinghamshire, and it is interesting to see the effect which places most familiar to you produce on the minds of strangers of taste and poetical feeling. His delight at finding himself in old Sherwood, the haunt of Robin[422] Hood; in hearing the bells of Mansfield at a distance; and his remarking the names of Wagstaff, Hardstaff, Beardall, as names abounding about the forest, naturally suggesting the character of those who first bore them—names so common to our eyes as never to have awakened any such idea;—all this is very agreeable; but let no lover of ancient customs go thither on the strength of Washington Irving’s report, unless he means to travel much farther north of the Trent than Newstead. There is certainly a May-pole standing in the village of Linby near Newstead, and there is one in the village of Farnsfield near Southwell; but I have been endeavouring to recollect any others for twenty miles round and cannot do it, and though garlands are generally hung on these poles on May-day, wreathed by the hands of some fair damsel who has a lingering affection for the olden times, and carried up by some adventurous lad; alas! the dance beneath it, where is it? In the dales of Derbyshire, May-poles are more frequent, but the dancing I never saw. In my own recollection, the appearance of morris-dancers, guisers, plough-bullocks, and Christmas carollers, has become more and more rare, and to find them we must go into the retired hamlets of Staffordshire, and the dales of Yorkshire and Lancashire. One would have thought that the May-day fête would have outlasted all others, except it were Christmas, on the strength of the poetical wealth of heart and fancy woven with it through our literature. Every writer of any taste and fancy has referred with enthusiasm to May-day. Chaucer, Spenser, Shakspeare, Fletcher, Milton, Browne, Herrick, and all our later poets, have sung of it with all their hearts. Chaucer, in Palamon and Arcite, describes Arcite going to the woods for garlands on May morning, according to the old custom. He Is risen, and looketh on the merry day; And for to do his observance to May, Remembering on the point of his desire, He on the courser, starting as the fire, Is risen to the fieldés him to playe; Out of the court were it a mile or tway: And to the grove of which that I you told, By Aventine his way began to hold,[423] To maken him a garland of the greves, Were it of woodbine, or of hawthorn leaves, And loud he sung, against the sunny sheen: “O May, with all thy flowers and thy green, Right welcome be thou, fairé, freshé May; I hope that I some green here getten may.” And from his courser with a lusty heart, Into the grove full hastily he start, And in a path he roamed up and down. Milton has many beautiful glances at it, and Shakspeare touches on it in a hundred places, as in “The Midsummer Night’s Dream:” If thou lovest me then, Steal forth thy father’s house to-morrow night; And in a wood, a league without the town, Where I did meet thee once with Helena, To do observance to a morn of May, There will I stay for thee. The European observance of this custom is principally derived from the Romans, who have left traces of it in all the countries they subdued. It was their festival of Flora. It was the time in which they sacrificed to Maia; and in Spain, where this custom seems to remain much as they left it, the village-queen still is called Maia. But we have traces of it as it existed amongst the Saxons, whose barons at this time going to their Wittenagemote, or Assembly of Wise Men, left their peasantry to a sort of saturnalia, in which they chose a king, who chose his queen. He wore an oaken, and she a hawthorn wreath; and together they gave laws to the rustic sports, during those sweet days of freedom. The May-pole too, or the column of May, was the grand standard of justice amongst these people, in the EY-COMMONS, or fields of May: and the garland hung on its top, was the signal for convening the people. Here it was that the people, if they saw cause, deposed or punished their governors, their barons and kings. It was one of the most ancient customs, which, says Brande, has by repetition been from year to year perpetuated. But we have traces also of its mode of celebration among our Druid ancestors, for it is certainly one of the old customs of the world, having come down from the earliest ages of Paganism[424] through various channels. Dr. Clarke in his Travels, vol. ii. p. 229, has shewn that the custom of blowing horns on this day, still continued at Oxford, Cambridge, London, and other places, is derived from a festival of Diana. These ancient customs of the country did not escape the notice of Erasmus when in England, nor the ceremony of placing a deer’s head upon the altar of St. Paul’s church, which was built upon the site of a temple of Diana, by Ethelbert, king of Kent. Mr. Johnson, in his “Indian Field Sports,” also states the curious circumstance, that the Hindoos hold a vernal feast called Bhuvizah, on the 9th of Baisach, exclusively for such as keep horned cattle for use or profit, when they erect a pole and adorn it with garlands; and perform much the same rites as used to be adopted by the English on the first of May. Thus it appears how ancient and how widely spread was this custom; and its celebration by the Druids and Celts points it out as belonging to the worship of the sun. In Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland, the people still kindle fires on the tops of their mountains on this day, called Beal Fires, and the festival then celebrated Beltane, or Bealtane. The practice is to be traced in the mountainous and uncultivated parts of Cumberland, amongst the Cheviots, and in many parts of Scotland. Mr. Pennant says—“On the first of May, in the Highlands of Scotland, the herdsmen of every district hold their Beltein. They cut a square trench in the ground, leaving the turf in the middle. On that they make a fire of wood, on which they dress a large caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal, and milk, and bring, besides the ingredients of the caudle, plenty of beer and whisky; for each of the company must contribute something. The rite begins with spilling some of the caudle on the ground, by way of libation. On that every one takes a cake of oatmeal, on which are raised nine square knobs, each dedicated to some particular being, the supposed preserver of their flocks and herds; or to some particular animal, the real destroyer of them. Each person then turns his face to the fire, breaks off a knob, and flinging it over his shoulder, says—“This I give to thee; preserve thou my sheep: this I give to thee; preserve thou my horses:” and so on. After that they use the same ceremony to the noxious animals—“This I give to thee O Fox! spare thou my lambs; this to thee O hooded Crow! this to[425] thee Eagle! When the ceremony is over they dine on the caudle, etc. etc.” Something of this kind is retained in Northumberland, in the syllabub prepared for the May-feast, which is made of warm milk from the cow, sweet cake, and wine; and a kind of divination is practised by fishing with a ladle for a wedding-ring, which is dropped into it for the purpose of prognosticating who shall be first married. This divination of the wedding-ring is practised in the midland counties on Christmas-eve; and they have a peculiar kind of tall pots made expressly for this purpose, called posset-pots. I have myself fished for the ring on many a merry Christmas-eve. One cannot avoid seeing in these ceremonies their most ancient origin and consequently wide-spread adoption. The throwing over the shoulder offerings to good and evil powers is exactly that of all savage nations, the effect of one uniform tradition. The American Indians, indeed, seldom propitiate the good, but are very careful to appease, or prevent the evil Manitou. These notions have, no doubt, everywhere contributed to connect ideas of the presence and power of spiritual and fairy creatures, and the extraordinary license of witchcraft on this night and day. We cannot avoid thinking of the wizard rites of the Blocksburg in Germany, made so familiar by Go?the; and we see the reason why all houses were defended by forest boughs, gathered with peculiar ceremonies, and worn by the young on May-eve, in almost every European country. What then were the exact ceremonies of May-day? The Romans celebrated the feast of Flora in this manner. The young people went to the woods, and brought back a quantity of boughs, with which they adorned their houses. Women ran through the streets, and had the privilege of insulting every one who came in their way. And here may we not see the custom, still continued in France, though fallen into desuetude here, of the epousées (brides) of the month of May? The epousées are the little daughters of the common people, dressed in their best, and placed on a chair, or bank, in the streets and public walks, on the first Sunday in May. Other little girls, the brides’ companions, stand near with plates, and tease the passengers for some money for their epousées. [426] Like the Romans, then, our ancestors celebrated May-day as a festival of the young. The youth of both sexes rose shortly after midnight, and went to some neighbouring wood, attended by songs and music, and breaking green branches from the trees, adorned themselves with wreaths and crowns of flowers. They returned home at the rising of the sun, and made their windows and doors gay with garlands. In the villages they danced during the day round the May-pole, which was hung to the very top with wreaths and garlands, and afterwards remained the whole year untouched, except by the seasons,—a fading emblem and consecrated offering to the Goddess of Flowers. At night the villagers lighted up fires, and indulged in revellings, after the Roman fashion. In this country they added the pageant of Robin Hood and Maid Marian, with Friar Tuck, Will Stutely, and others of their merry company; the dragon and the hobby-horse,—all of which may be found fully described in Strutt’s Queenhoo-Hall. Spenser and Herrick give very graphic pictures of these popular festivities, which I shall here transcribe; and first, Spenser from the Shepherds’ Calendar. Young folke now flocken in everywhere To gather May buskets,[27] and smelling brere; And home they hasten the posts to dight, And all the kirk pillars, ere daylight:


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