A Celebration of Spring
The hawthorn, once known simply as ‘May’, is naturally enough the tree most associated with this month in many parts of the British Isles. When we read of medieval knights and ladies riding out ‘a-maying’ on the first morning of May, this refers to the flowering hawthorn boughs they gathered to decorate the halls rather than the month itself. For on this day, according to the Old Style calendar that was in use until the 18th century, the woods and hedges were alight with its glistening white blossoms.
This and similar customs to welcome in the summer flourished in rural places until quite recently. In some villages, mayers would leave a hawthorn branch at every house, singing traditional songs as they went. The seventeenth-century English poet Robert Herrick wrote:
There’s not a budding boy or girl this day,
But is got up and gone to bring in May;
A deal of youth ere this is come
Back, with whitethorn laden home.
The young girls rose at dawn to bathe in dew gathered from hawthorn flowers to ensure their beauty in the coming year, as the old rhyme goes:
The fair maid who, the first of May,
Goes to the fields at break of day
And washes in dew from the hawthorn tree,
Will ever after handsome be.
For May was the month of courtship and love-making after the winter’s cold; and so the hawthorn is often found linked with love-making. In ancient Greece the wood was used for the marriage torch, and girls wore hawthorn crowns at weddings. One writer has even gone so far as to suggest that the ‘stale, sweet scent from the trimethylamine the flowers contain, makes them suggestive of sex.’ (Geoffrey Grigson: The Englishman’s Flora, Phoenix House, 1956)